Liz Harmer Reviews Great House by Nicole Krauss

Nicole Krauss's Great House has avoided the baggage of "women's fiction" pointed out by Meg Wolitzer in a recent New York Times article; unlike other contemporary novels written by women, the jacket of Great House does not deal in domestic clich├ęs, the "laundry hanging on a line. A little girl in a field of wildflowers. A pair of shoes on a beach. An empty swing on the porch of an old yellow house" (Wolitzer). Instead, the cover is abstract, textual: a jacket which does not diminish the strong, serious stuff within.  

Great House is most remarkable in its central structuring device--it is anchored by the heft of an old, somewhat monstrous desk, a desk which connects the four otherwise disparate narrators weaving their dark tales. The first is a female novelist who holds onto it for a Chilean poet who then disappears from her life. The desk roots her to her apartment for decades and guides the writing of each of her novels: "One drawer was slightly ajar, one of the nineteen drawers, some small and some large, whose odd number and strange array, I realized now . . . had come to signify a kind of guiding if mysterious order in my life" (16). The preoccupations of this narrator as she gives her life story to another character, a judge in a hospital bed, revolve around this desk--her memories of it, her grief--now that it has been retrieved by another of the characters on behalf of the missing poet. Another narrator has given his life to the pursuit of furniture that had been lost by the Jews in the Holocaust. The novel, in some sense, is a lineage of the desk. 

Virginia Woolf wrote that a novel should have a vertical line going through it as an organizing principle--the chiming of Big Ben in Mrs. Dalloway and the lighthouse in To the Lighthouse --as though such a work is not a linear thing, moving ahead chronologically, but a circling one, rippling outwards from a solid centre. Though Great House spans full lifetimes, covering failed relationships of all kinds and the mysteries people are to one another, it does so anchored, always, by the enormous, ownerless desk.

The lineage of the desk is, of course, fraught. Its owners have led tragic lives, filled with secrets. The desk itself has a locked drawer: "The drawer had been locked for as long as I could remember . . . . I always instinctively reached for it first, awakening a kind of fleeting unhappiness, a kind of orphaned feeling that I knew had nothing to do with the drawer but had somehow come to live there" (21). All of the feelings--the loneliness, confusion, rage, and unhappiness shared by the characters--are orphans: we never truly understand their origins and neither do the characters. Instead, we grope in the darkness of a novel evocative of terror and refusing to explain. 

Besides the structure, one other remarkable thing about Great House is these evocations of terror: it is filled with imagery that works to create both mood and suspense but never becomes properly symbolic. Images and objects are not translated in a direct way into ideas; instead, they communicate pain and terror without making their meaning clearly known. The characters, similarly, are groping and do not share their secrets with the reader. There is a story of a mother who burns herself and her children to death. Furniture begins to seem like decomposing bodies, and the first narrator's life turns edgy with depression and anxiety when the desk is finally taken from her. Another character is described by his narrator, his father, as nonhuman, as strange: "There was a little moonlight, and from what I could see the stick figure looked like neither a man nor a woman, and not a child either. An animal, maybe. A wolf, or a wild dog" (63). Most secretive, most traumatized is the character of Lotte Berg, who tells her husband nothing of her experience during the war--the loss of her parents and her home--and who takes daily swims in the "swimming hole" that gives one of the chapters its title: "She'd approach the water's edge. For a moment she would stand completely still. God knows what she thought about. Up until last she was a mystery to me. . . . And then, in a flash, she'd disappear into the darkness" (77). Characters are ghostly, beastly, being swallowed up. Most fearsome of all is the titular great house, a Victorian which has "gone to seed" (110). Like something in a nineteenth-century Gothic, its inhabitants trap themselves miserably there, a sister, a brother, and a difficult, obsessive father who leaves to seek furniture lost during the Second World War: "Leah remembered the arrival of certain of these long-lost pieces . . . , tense and somber events that had terrified her so much as a small child she would sometimes hide in the kitchen when the crates were pried open, in case what popped out were the blackened faces of her dead grandparents" (115). 

Great House is haunted by history. The repetition of all of these dark images, these secrets, as well as the looming furniture and houses haunted not by literal ghosts but by family pain, did make it feel to me like a Gothic novel. The atmosphere is thick and eerie; the frightening mood and insinuation of secrets enough in themselves to propel the narrative. Suspense is strong, but, like everything in the book, somehow mysterious; I lapped the pages up eagerly without understanding why I was so curious about the life of the desk and its owners. The narrators take us through the long stories of their lives and we follow willingly, afraid for and compelled by the secret darkness at their heart.  

Of course, the novel is about alienation, about loss, about secrets, and all of these images and stories--the monstrous furniture and terrible deeds, the swimming holes and locked drawers, the blackened faces and wolfish children--do some symbolic work. But I think that this is not, primarily, how they function. Any such symbolism is interrupted and indeterminate. Instead, they compel us to feel as the characters do, to grope like they do, and to feel their fear. Objects first give life texture, keep us company with their heft, their  physical presence. The desks that anchor our lives do so first actually and then symbolically--first by being present and then by receiving the whole confusion of meaning we wish to pour into them. 

 Review by Liz Harmer

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