The best way to describe Nicole Krauss’s novel is to borrow from the author’s own words. Written “in the mysterious poetry of the mind’s associations” (252), Great House is an emotionally moving cornucopia of four separate stories each revolving loosely around a desk. Yes, a desk. The premise doesn’t sound that interesting from the outset, and I’ll admit that I was a little cautious about reading this one when I began it. But having had some prior exposure to this young author’s skill and ability to weave a touching narrative in an artful new direction in History of Love, I trusted that Great House would be much more than just a story about a desk.
The novel starts mysteriously with a first person narrative spoken from the voice of a middle-aged female author narrating her life to a judge that she only refers to as Your Honor. It isn’t clear what crime this author committed, nor why she is permitted to speak so openly to the judge – that isn’t made clear until much later after several of the novel’s interrelated drawers are thrown open. This author, Nadia, wrote much of her life’s work on a desk that she was temporarily holding for a brief acquaintance she made with a Chilean poet named Daniel Varsky. Yet Varsky went missing and was presumed as dead, a victim to the Pinochet regime and for over twenty-five years Nadia became accustomed to the desk in her life until Varsky’s daughter mysteriously arrives and requests the desk. After Nadia surrenders the property to its proper heir, she suffers a breakdown and is motivated to travel to Jerusalem from New York to search out the secret of Varsky’s life.
From Nadia’s narrative Great House abruptly cuts ties and begins anew with the narration transitioned to an equally mysterious elderly Jewish man speaking to his estranged son. It isn’t immediately clear what the situation is, for it seems as though they are in a hospital, as the father recounts his son’s history as though the son has lost his memories. Following this second part we are then brought to London with a new narrative voice, spoken by an elderly man who has recently lost his wife to Alzheimer’s. Arthur’s wife, Lotte, was a difficult and silent woman that escaped Nazi Germany but lost her family. The elderly Arthur sadly reminisces that “silence was not so much a form of evasion as a way for solitary people to coexist in a family”(123), but in his ailing wife’s mental decline she reveals to him a terrible secret that he never new that she could have kept hidden from him during their fifty years of marriage. That secret is a shadow that reflects Lotte’s connection to the same desk once later owned by Varsky and Nadia. Ultimately, that desk and the secrets it carries inside it are the central motivations of the last of the four stories woven through Great House. Weisz is a Jewish antiques dealer that has been rebuilding his father’s office looted by the Nazi’s. The desk represents the final piece of furniture that represents his father’s legacy, and finding the desk has become an obsession for the past fifty years of Weisz’s life.
In reading Great House, what begins as a seemingly disconnected and chopped collection of four short stories grows into a tightly woven single narrative. As the narrative reveals itself, it becomes clear that the desk isn’t really that important, and the secrets of the desks locked drawer remain reserved only for Weisz’s eyes. The accidental relationships of the characters remains just as they are accidental. What is important in this book are its overarching themes that focus on memory, loss, reflection, and loneliness. Each character’s narrative voice is written with a sense of mystery that heightens the emotional power of their stories. This novel lingered with me after each reading I found myself reflecting on long lost memories of my own life, much like the novel’s narrators would reflect on the culmination of old circumstances that lead them to their current situation. Great House is about the things that have happened and the impact of the past on the choices that drive its character’s present situation – only to reveal that “we take comfort in the symmetries we find in life because they suggest a design where there is none.” (82)