Great House by Nicole Krauss

Sometimes a book stay in your head long after you have finished reading and put it down, not allowing you to let go and move on to something else.

You have to recall passages, theme, images. You have to think about the questions it left you with. Maybe you even have to pick it up again, because you know there will be things you missed, more that will reveal itself on subsequent readings.

Great House has been one of those books for me.

It wasn’t a book I rushed to read, but as time went on I became more and more curious. So much praise and the idea stories spun around a desk did appeal. I’ve always liked a desk.

I acquired my first desk when I was eight years old, and I’ve considered one to be an absolutely essential part of the furniture ever since. I can recall scratching the year – 1973 – on to that case in case it should need dating in the future. With the benefit of hindsight I doubt that the simple child’s desk survives. These days I have a lovely bureau that my godmother had made and later left to me, together with her cookery books.

But I digress. This book is built around a different desk. A bigger, older, darker desk with many drawers and compartments.  A desk with a longer more complex history. A desk that has been looted, gifted, loaned, recovered …

But Great House isn’t the story of a desk. It is a story of lives linked, sometimes closely and sometimes tenuously, by the desk. At some times the desk is at the heart of the story, and at others it is distant. Just there. Or maybe not there.

There are four narratives that move the book back and forth , between eras and locations. The chronology isn’t straightforward and the links aren’t immediately clear. Some will be revealed and others will need to be deduced. This is a book that needs to be worked at.

Those four narratives are distinctive and I had no problems moving between them. Each time the story shifted I was pulled in again by intelligence, emotion and such elegant prose.

And the underlying themes came through, giving some relatively simple stories depth. The importance of emotional ties. How easily they can be damaged. How easily we can misunderstand, and what damage that can do. How one generation can determine the fate of the next. And the Jewish diaspora…

Serious themes, and these were serious stories. At times it was too much.  It was relentless. I wanted a little light, maybe even a dash of humour. They never came, but I still held on. Those four narratives held me, my head and my heart.

 Individually they had their weaknesses. One felt rushed. One veered dangerously toward sentimentality. Another teetered on the brink of melodrama. One though was perfect. Strangely it was the one least connected with the history of the desk. And yet they came together to make something greater than the sum of their parts.

I’ve written little about the plot. Much has been written about Great House, and if you want to know more you will find it quite easily. But it is a book I would recommend coming too with as little foreknowledge as possible. I can’t quite explain why, but I think it’s because there’s so much there is so much there, both said and unsaid, that focusing on any one aspect would distort your view…

I didn’t find Great House an easy book, but I am very glad I read it.

And I’m still thinking about it …

8 responses

  1. This is waiting for me at the library. I wasn’t certain about her last book, ‘The History of Love’. All around me people were polarised by it; they either loved or hated it. I was left rather nonplussed. You’ve made me feel I might enjoy this more, thank you.

    • I think you will enjoy this more – I did. There is much more to think about and the quality of the writing is wonderful.

  2. I read this last week and although I didn’t love it, I thought it was a great concept and I was very impressed with the quality of the writing. Definitely not an easy read, but it gave me a lot to think about.

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