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Ron Charles reviews "Great House," by Nicole Krauss

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By Ron Charles
Wednesday, October 20, 2010

GREAT HOUSE

By Nicole Krauss

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Norton. 289 pp. $24.95

"Great House" seems to offer everything we loved about Nicole Krauss's previous novel five years ago: the pursuit of a lost object fraught with meaning, multiple narrators contributing pieces of a convoluted tale, and fractured visions from across a century punctuated by the Holocaust. All of that came together with gorgeous finesse in "The History of Love," a high-wire dance over pits of mawkishness and confusion.

A finalist for next month's National Book Award, "Great House" doesn't take so many risks -- none of those clever tricks that might have seemed gimmicky the second time around -- but it also never dazzles us, never sweeps us away. Its beauty is a heavy brocade of grief that won't let these characters soar.

One of the fundamental, often unmet challenges of reviewing novels is describing the plot without giving too much away. (See: "Atonement.") "Great House," though, presents an almost unique example of a book you'd enjoy more if someone spoiled the suspense first. The whole story seems built around the possession, the loss and the search for a giant wooden desk of 19 drawers -- one tantalizingly locked. Four main narrators, thousands of miles apart, deliver somber testimonies of their lives and their interactions with this errant piece of furniture.

How are these narrators related? Where did the desk come from, and what are its "hidden meanings"? Who has the key to that one locked drawer?

Krauss buries the answers to these mysteries in a thicket of scrambled testimonies; you can fill the margins of these pages with little clues and sketch out a web of transactions and relationships.

But -- spoiler alert -- don't bother.

The dispiriting punch line to this complicated novel is that these mysteries are the least interesting thing about it. The desk turns out to be rather incidental, and the obscure relationships among some of these characters are merely accidental. The riddles that soak up so much attention are distractions from the moving stories that these disparate narrators have to tell.

Nadia, for instance, acquired the desk from a young Chilean poet who died at the hands of Pinochet. A minor novelist in New York, she describes a lifetime of writerly seclusion that calcified into loneliness before she realized it was too late to change. Her two mournful chapters reflect on the horrible cost of that attitude. She realizes she was "someone who made use of the pain of others for her own ends, who, while others suffered, starved and were tormented, hid herself safely away and prided herself on her special perceptiveness and sensitivity to the symmetry buried below things, someone who needed little help to convince herself that her self-important project was serving the greater good."

On the other side of the world in Jerusalem, a widower delivers a bitter internal monologue to his long-absent son. It's a harsh, raw cry that bleeds recrimination and regret. The introspective boy he never understood has become the distant, impenetrable man he's now desperate to reach, but the two of them live in a "special glass silence," and "the moment for compassion is long past."


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