The problem with build-up

Great House
by Nicole Krauss

I loved Krauss’s two previous novels, Man Walks Into a Room and The History of Love. Add in that this book was shortlisted for this year’s Orange Prize and you have some pretty high hopes and expectations. Were they met? Kinda, ish, not really.

This was one of those books that I started…not struggling with, but I wasn’t particularly drawn into it. Krauss creates complex, believable characters with distinct voices and interesting histories and weaves a story that slowly links these disparate people together, but it took a while for me to be hooked. Once I was, though, I was thoroughly hooked and stayed up far too late three nights in a row to get to the end.

Just one more chapter

This isn’t exactly one story, it’s the tale of several lives that are linked by a desk. Yes – a desk. It isn’t entirely clear, when you meet some characters, how they are connected. The stories come together from various angles, usually made more obtuse by having the narrator of that section not really be the person that it’s about. So there’s Nadia, a writer in New York who spends one night with an enigmatic Chilean poet and then never sees him again, though he haunts her whole life. There’s Arthur in London, caring for his dying wife who is losing her memory. There’s Izzy, an American student at Oxford who falls in love with an Israeli who can never be as close to her as he is to his sister.

“Great House” is a term from Jewish history, originally a quote from the Book of Kings. Most of the characters in the novel are Jewish and the action keeps coming back to Jerusalem and also to the Second World War. The timeline is not always clear, though every so often a date is thrown in to the narrative. It takes a while to puzzle out the desk’s journey across the world and it doesn’t help that there are some red herrings along the way. But while figuring out how the characters are linked is a interesting exercise, you could just as easily read this as separate stories because each one is beautifully written and in most cases I was sorry to get to the end and have to switch to a new narrator again.

I do have a couple of gripes. The book takes in a lot of locations and I thought it telling that New York, which is the author’s home, is not really described and yet is completely believable as a location, whereas Oxford is painstakingly detailed in terms of streets walked down and pubs visited and yet did not feel at all real. Similarly Liverpool. And, frankly, Arthur’s leafy London suburb could have been anywhere, though he doesn’t leave home much so that might be unfair. Jerusalem was better-realised though it didn’t completely come to life for me.

My other gripe is that two sections are told by and about characters whose link to the rest is, if I’ve understood it right, so slight that it seems out of place to have given them so much of the book. It does seem like the link might get stronger after the book ends, but that’s just supposition on my part.

Overall, the strength of the characterisation overcomes everything else for me and I like the book but I didn’t love it like her previous novels.

First published in the USA in 2010 by W W Norton.
Paperback edition published 2011.

On a related note, this month’s Radio 4 Book Club was with Nicole Krauss. They were talking about The History of Love but a lot of her answers are also relevant to Great House, particularly one about developing characters’ voices.