Great House is not so much one novel but four: split between past and present, its five narrators each tell their story. Although the blurb states that it is ‘a desk of many drawers’ which connects these tales, the narrations are bound more tightly by questions of heredity, roots and loss.
The novel starts with Nadia, who for 25 years has written at the desk which was left in her flat by a young Chilean poet who disappeared into the hands of Pinochet’s secret police. Then there is Lotte Berg, a generation older but also a writer who worked at the desk for many years. Lotte’s story is told by her husband, who has found out his wife’s darkest secret only after her death, and is haunted by what the desk represents. The Weisz family feature too: George Weisz – the commanding father of Leah and Yoav – devotes his life to finding the desk, which belonged to his father. For Leah and Yoav, the desk represents their continual struggle with their father and his obsession with the past. Their tale is told by Isabelle; Yaov’s lover and outsider to the Weisz family.
The only story with no link to the desk is Aaron’s – the story of an old Israeli who, coming to the end of his life, has to face up to the void between him and one of his adult sons, who he has never been able to relate to. This, for me, is the most resonant story: Aaron’s resentment, anger and unexpressed love for his son make for a thrilling narration.
“We search for patterns, you see, only to find where the patterns break. And it’s there, in that fissure, that we pitch out tents and wait”
The novel can be confusing – the sudden changes of character and setting (the book straddles four cities: London, Oxford, New York and Jerusalem) do disrupt the flow of the book, and the links between the stories can seem tenuous. But the disjointed tales are all connected one way or another, and in the end the links are almost irrelevant: Krauss is challenging the reader to overcome the lack of structure, to step back and to see the big picture – the Great House.
Despite this, the beauty of the book is not in the larger picture but in the detail of the narrations: Krauss’s skill as a writer is undeniable. Her characters are made human by their pride, lack of faith and inability to identify with each other. The novel can be hard to piece together when you’re reading it (even after reading it I feel like it needs a second going through to identify all of the smaller links) but it is so rewarding to piece together. It is a novel I know I will not forget.