Book review: Great House by Nicole Krauss
Published by WW Norton, 352 pp, $28.50, hardcover
A portrait of living in the wake of loss, Nicole Krauss’s third novel, Great House, uses the provenance and possession of a wooden desk as a metaphor for collective Jewish memory. In her first book since the 2005 international bestseller The History of Love, Krauss tells the fractured history of this ordinary piece of furniture through various plots and narrators, expressing what it represents to the lives it enters.
At the desk loaned to her in 1972 by a young poet who later vanishes in Chile, Nadia fulfills her ambition of becoming a writer. In the spring of 1999, a girl alleging to be the poet’s daughter appears in New York to reclaim it, and Nadia’s subsequent release of the desk leads to her psychological collapse.
And she is not the only literary type whose creative output is linked to the furnishing. Another narrative strand returns to the 1970s, when a stranger arrives at the London home of Arthur and Lotte. Uncharacteristically, Lotte, a writer plagued by an artistic temperament and a tragic past, develops a relationship with the visitor. Arthur later discovers that the desk his wife has treasured for years is gone, given to the young man who came to their door. Eventually, he learns a secret that Lotte has kept buried for ages, and reconsiders both the origin of the desk and the guest who accepted it.
Great House’s ideas about faith are cemented in the sections about George Weisz, an antiques dealer famed for recovering belongings that were pillaged from Jews during the Second World War. Determined to reassemble his father’s study, where the Gestapo seized the desk in 1944, Weisz is obsessed with reuniting what was taken from his family.
Like the survival of Jewish culture, this desk emerges, each time intact, connecting its owners to fundamental ideas they have about themselves. “Bend a people around the shape of what they lost,” Krauss writes, “and let everything mirror its absent form.”
A Brooklyn resident, Krauss creates prose that sails across the page—line after lyrical line, propelled by ardour. A story about identity and personal alchemy, Great House addresses, with emotional delicacy, the gravity of the creative mind, the unintended burdens of inheritance, and the accumulated losses of history.