Nicole Krauss’ novels aren’t for reading; they’re for appreciating thoughtfully, the way one might approach a museum piece. Her The History Of Love was terrific, justly one of the most acclaimed novels of 2005, but it also gave off a sense of narrative slowed to a crawl by slow-dripping sap that stymied forward momentum. In her follow-up, Great House, that sap has hardened to amber.
There are ample rewards in Great House for readers who don’t mind digging through Krauss’ “every sentence is its own reward” style. The easiest way to decide whether the book is for you or not is consider the fact that the book’s protagonist is, more or less, a desk. True, the desk becomes a totem of inner anguish for the five voices at play in the novel, but it’s still the one “character” (and Krauss does wonders with imbuing a stationary object with character traits) that continues throughout the book.
Krauss’ structure is going to wear plenty of readers out before they begin to figure out just what she’s up to. The book is divided up into four novellas, only connected by the desk. (And strictly speaking, one segment seems to have no connection to any of the others for almost three-quarters of the book’s length.) Krauss divides these four pieces over the halves of the book, so that returning to the characters in the second half has the feel of returning to old friends. Some installments (an old man’s attempts to figure out his dying wife’s secret past, an antiques dealer’s obsessive hunt for the items taken from his family during the Holocaust) work better than others (a New York writer’s attempts to combat her depression). But as Krauss moves through the novel, toward meaning and away from narrative, the book’s lugubrious pace becomes oddly welcome. This is a novel of tiny epiphanies, but Krauss writes tiny epiphanies extraordinarily well.
On the other hand, getting to “the good stuff,” the parts of the novel that begin to signify Krauss’ deeper meaning, takes more than 100 pages, and Krauss defies readers’ desires for an easy ending as well, refusing to tie her narratives together. This makes the moments when she does deign to link them slightly—by one character showing up in another novella, say—that much more thrilling. Sure, it’s more realistic that not all of the puzzle pieces fit, that some mysteries go unanswered, but it’s going to drive some readers nuts.
Those whom it doesn’t bother, however, will find much to appreciate. Krauss’ novels are the literary equivalent of Terrence Malick films, where individual, usually gorgeous images are as important to the overall narrative as the story. It’s the same with a Krauss novel, where every sentence feels fretted and fussed over to within an inch of its life. Every sentence is exquisite, inviting slow, contemplative reading. It enhances the feeling of the book moving forward at a snail’s pace, but in a manner that enhances Krauss’ central themes. Great House is about many things—diaspora, adoption, and the writing life among them—but what takes the novel from curiosity to near-great is Krauss’ evocation of the way we imbue objects with meaning and memory beyond what they should hold. The book, like the desk at its center, moves slowly from one owner to another, but those owners fill both with such loss and regret that they come to be more than they initially seem.