Over years, four narratives knit together

By Ann Harleman
Globe Correspondent / October 10, 2010

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The structure of “Great House,’’ Nicole Krauss’s third novel, feels, initially, like a gauntlet thrown down. Opening the book, you are plunged without warning into the tumultuous inner world of an unnamed narrator. As in the tales of Edgar Allan Poe or the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning, the voice sweeps you up, slyly implicating you by making you work to ferret out the most basic information: time and place, the age and sex of its owner, the identity of its addressee. And this is only one of four narrators whose accounts you, reader, must knit together — zigzagging back and forth over time and space, switching perspectives, juggling accounts — into the story the novel tells.

Almost anything this review says will erode the puzzle-solving, be-your-own-architect pleasure of reading “Great House.’’ Nevertheless, the four narrators are Nadia, an American writer on a trip to Jerusalem; an unnamed Israeli widower; Arthur, a retired Oxford don; and Isabel, an American woman of unknown occupation living in New York. All four are middle-aged or older, telling their stories — making their confessions, really. A situation in the present, not to be revealed here, links them dramatically. But their accounts concern the past.

Rilke advised us to “have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and . . . try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms.” Because each of the four narrators focuses on someone else — a loved one dead or missing — their accounts are based upon questions. Nadia is haunted by Daniel Varsky, a young Chilean poet whom she met only once; the Israeli narrator, by his long-estranged son, Dov; Arthur, by his deceased wife, Lotte, a writer with a lifelong secret who barely escaped the Nazis; Isabel, by the family of her former lover Yoav. For these four, the passionate quest to understand — or simply to find out the facts about — another person hides or buries a longing to find themselves.

Initially the answers they seek seem to lie in objects. “I can’t bring the dead back to life,” George Weisz, the father of Yoav, tells Arthur. “But I can bring back the chair they once sat in, the bed where they slept.” Weisz has made a career out of tracking and retrieving, by fair means or foul, objects stolen from Holocaust victims and returning them to family members. One of the objects Weisz has spent his life pursuing is a desk stolen from his own father’s study in Budapest in 1944. Beautiful and mysterious — “really more like a ship than a desk, a ship riding a pitch-black sea in the dead of a moonless night with no hope of land” — it has entered and left the lives of three of the four narrators. But to see in this — or any — object the main link among them is to miss the true nature of this novel’s tensile strength.

What holds the four sections of “Great House’’ in centripetal balance is, paradoxically, the theme of loss. Its narrators lose those they love to the Holocaust, to Pinochet’s Chile, to Alzheimer’s, to their own pigheadedness. Krauss’s understanding of the varieties of human suffering — exceptional in a writer so young — makes the experience of her characters resonate in us. Their stunningly distinct and lively voices hold us captive to their versions of their lives; yet such is Krauss’s skill that we hear, at the same time, the counterpoint of what really happened. “What can you learn from those books that you weren’t born knowing already?” the unnamed second narrator demands of his absent son. “And then, watering the vegetables, I let a little spray drift in your direction, soaking your book. But it wasn’t me who stood in your way. I couldn’t have even if I wanted to.” Krauss, who began her career as a poet, can do just about anything she wants with the English language. Even refracted through the very different lenses of her narrators, her eye for the telling image is a delight. Nadia: “Slowly, like a great hot-air balloon drifting down and landing with a bump in the grass, our marriage of a decade expired.” Arthur: “her Alzheimer’s became advanced and language came unbraided in her.” Isabel: “in marrying my father, my mother had decided to suffocate [her intellectual interests] in one fell swoop, as one drowns a litter of unwanted kittens.”

How to bring to a satisfying conclusion a novel propelled by drawn-out, ever-deepening questions? Part II endeavors, not wholly successfully, to do so. The tying up of loose ends feels hurried and perfunctory, and the last-minute surfacing of a fifth narrator hurls the story backward into the past without telling us anything we didn’t already know. “Great House’’ is so artfully suspended among its storytellers that Krauss could have trusted it to hold up without any such buttressing. For the reader, as for the characters, answers are not the point. The point, as Rilke says, is the asking — the search itself — which sustains each of the four characters just as the beautifully constructed web of their stories sustains the novel.

Ann Harleman is the author of two story collections, “Happiness” and “Thoreau’s Laundry,” and two novels, “Bitter Lake” and “The Year She Disappeared.” She can be reached through her website,

By Nicole Krauss
Norton, 289 pp., $24.95