It was a promising beginning, for the opening chapter “All Rise”. The narrator addresses to Your Honor confessing a break-up with her boyfriend, R, in the winter of 1972. Initially, I thought Nicole Krauss’s new novel was a collection of short stories, which in my opinion would have worked out much better. Comes the second chapter “True Kindness” when the narration switches from first person to second. That is unusual. Because there are only a few novels that tell a story involving you – the reader – throughout the plot. It is refreshing, even though this second chapter seems depressing. It is a story told from a father’s perspective. You are his first son and you have a brother. There is a funeral for his wife. And your father recounts the memory of your upbringing, how different you are from your brother, and how you and your father never get along (it does read a bit odd being referred as you, doesn’t it?) At that point, I still thought that “Great House” was a collection of short stories, a genre I adore reading lately.
Then we have “Swimming Holes”. A story told by an old husband in the first person perspective, on his soon to be dead wife, and a secret kept by his wife soon to be revealed – she has a son whom she was given away at birth. And there and then, a connection back to the first chapter “All Rise” with a Chilean poet. Or is it? Fourth chapter “Lies Told by Children” is a story – again in first person – about a girl having a brief relationship with a boy who has a sister. The focus of the story appears to be the siblings’ father, who is an antique collector. Linking these four stories is an old desk (it could be one, it could be different ones – I cannot tell). There is where it gets confusing.
These four stories confuse me because they do appear to be independent. The linkage could well be symbolic. It is also hard to remember the narrator’s names (or even some characters who are not frequently mentioned but plays a role to the story). If “Great House” was a collection of short stories, one could get immersed into one story, expect it to have an abstract ending, without the need to memorize the characters, and move onto the next one. It is like admiring a beautiful garden instead of navigating through a jungle. To read “Great House” as a novel requires a fair bit of thinking. If I was to read it again (less likely to be so), I would start to write notes as I progress. On the characters, the relationships, the objects, the events, the locations, and the timelines.
First four chapters of the book contribute to part one. In part two, the chapter titles almost resemble the previous part: True Kindness, All Rise, Swimming Holes, and Weisz. To add onto the reading complexity, one has to link the two parts as well. Nicole Krauss is a witty writer. No doubt about it. Her prose is beautiful, although some of the airy scripts that devote to emotions and feelings may at times lose me. Because I prefer to see a good balance of actions and internal thoughts. Also, the entire book has no conversational dialogs. There are dialogs in the form of thoughts. And the difference between the two is interactiveness. Reading how one thinks is different from seeing how two converse. Hence in summary, I feel the novel is a bit dry for me to read.
To demonstrate the author’s style of writing, here is an excerpt taken from the “True Kindness” that I like best. Your name is Dov. A girl you are in love with has spent a night in your room (details not known). And the narrator is your father who mets this girl in the morning over breakfast while you – I presume – are still asleep. And you are writing, or attempt to write, a novel about a shark inside a tank.
I sat across from her and watched her eat. Such a small girl and such a large appetite. She was sure of her beauty; it was evident in her smallest gestures. She flung her arms and legs around with unstudied carelessness, but they always landed with grace. There was an inner logic that organized her thoroughly. Tell me something, I said. She looked at me, still chewing. A musky odor clung to her. What? she asked. I sat there, hair growing out of my ears. Never mind, I said, and let the giant shark swim off away from me. She finished eating in silence and got up to clean her plate. At the door she paused. The answer to your question is no, she said. What question? I said. The one you didn’t ask, she said. Oh? Which one is that? About Dov, she said. I waited for her to go on, but she didn’t. There was much in that instant I failed to grasp. I heard the front door close behind her.
Death is everywhere in the book. I suppose if you are in the right state of mind, this level of melancholy is beautiful. Some parts of the story can be heart wrenching, emotions described in such realism. There is also a linkage to the Jews and their heritage. To link up the stories, Nicole Krauss uses objects such as a desk, a symbolic stone, Israel, and writers, mingled with some of her characters. Above all, she uses the concept of a house, a Great House (hence the title). What is a Jew without Jerusalem? she asks. Bend a people round the shape of what they lost, and let everything mirror its absent form, she adds. Quote from Books of Kings by the author: He burned the house of God, the king’s house, and all the houses of Jerusalem; even every great house he burned with fire.
“Great House” is one of the books in which I struggle midway wanting to give up but am happy with the poetic ending. I have read “The History Of Love” too. But this one is a bit too sad, and dry.