Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Review: Great House

Great House
By Nicole Krauss
W.W. Norton and Co. October 2010
289 pages
From the Library of Lindsey

Great House

Great House revolves around an enormous and beautiful desk that travels the world. Lotte Berg is an author who pours the pain of losing her family during the Holocaust into her work, but never speaks of it to her loving husband. She passes the desk on to a young poet named Daniel Varsky because he reminds her of someone from the past. Varksy, in turn, leaves the desk with a young writer named Nadia before meeting a brutal end in Chile. Nadia writes books at the desk for 25 years before a girl shows up at her doorstep, claiming to be Varsky’s daughter and asking for the desk.

Each character in this book is dealing with loss and deciding how much of themselves they are willing to share with others. There is a lot of pain and sorrow that the characters experience, but each one finds something crucial while sitting at the desk – inspiration, answers, or closure.

This novel is divided into two books with four sections in each. Krauss visits each character twice. She employs some interesting strategies to tell this story. She never uses quotation marks, and it sometimes takes a while to tell whose section you are reading because she doesn’t indicate which stories belong to which characters.

Nicole Krauss is a very talented writer. Every phrase in this novel is integral to the characters and the stories they tell. Nothing here is wasted. Her descriptions of our moments of realization about ourselves and others are so striking and so perfect that they may cause you to stop for a moment to drink them in.

“By the time you were born, I understood, in a way that I could not have with Uri, just what the birth of a child means. How he grows, and how his innocence is slowly ruined, how his features change forever the first time he feels shame, how he comes to learn the meaning of disappointment, of disgust. How the whole world is contained inside of him, and it was mine to lose.”

This is not a novel for a quick skim. Reading Great House takes effort and serious attention on the part of the reader. Ms. Krauss is not one to tell you things outright; instead you have to work for every insight you get about these rich characters.  This is a novel you could return to several times, and pick up new understanding and connections with each reading. I think Krauss intentionally does not wrap up all of the loose ends, because hers is a story that is authentic. Our connections with other people and our understanding of our own lives are not things that are easily determined within a few years or a few hundred pages.  

I think the best way to experience this book is as a collection of short stories instead of a linear story. While they are loosely based around the desk, many of the characters have no interaction with each other. Krauss is a gorgeous writer, someone who is truly crafting language instead of just using it. Many readers seem to prefer her novel The History of Love to this one. I look forward to reading that book and whatever stories this talented writer graces us with in the future. 


  1. You make this sound so good but I didn't really like History of Love so I'm skeptical to try it. I just couldn't get along with the writing style.

    1. It's very unique. I don't think I've read anyone who writes quite like she does. People seem to like History of Love more than this one, so I'm not sure it's one you would enjoy.