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Ron Charles reviews "Great House," by Nicole Krauss

By Ron Charles
Wednesday, October 20, 2010; C01

GREAT HOUSE

By Nicole Krauss

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."

In England, another widower struggles to fathom the intimate secret his wife concealed from him for almost 50 years. Like Nadia, she was a writer, too, who defended her privacy and her time from all intrusions. "It seemed to me that my wife was built around a Bermuda Triangle," he says. "What hope did we really have of ever making sense of ourselves, let alone one another?"

And finally, a young woman named Isabel describes her bizarre involvement with two very, very close siblings who seem to have stepped from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." Cloistered in their enormous old mansion packed with ancient furniture and a grand piano hanging by ropes from the ceiling, this brother and sister draw Isabel deeper and deeper into their family's strange obsession. "I began to think of their talent, if one can call it that, as something borrowed from ghosts," she says.

Each of these roughly interlocking stories offers its own untreated pain and a gallery of haunting images. Sometimes the stories slide into the surreal, such as a night spent in what might be Heinrich Himmler's hideaway, a room filled with origami cranes, or an encased shark that serves as "a repository for human sadness." But despite these several narrators and their widely differing stories, a kind of tonal monotony lies across the novel, which is devoid of the charming humor that leavened "The History of Love." "Great House" remains unrelentingly serious, even dreary in its portrayal of "extreme solitude" coalescing into remorse. "My work would always win," Nadia says, "luring me back, opening its great black mouth and letting me slip in, sliding down and down, into the belly of the beast, how silent it was in there, how still."

"All my life it has shadowed me," says another character (it could be any of them), "a gnawing sense of doubt and the loathing that accompanied it, a special loathing I saved only for myself."

There's no denying the somber beauty of Krauss's prose, but in such a great house, one craves a wider spectrum of humanity.

Charles is the fiction editor of The Post. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.

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