Great House is an unusual novel that makes considerable demands of the reader. The book is made up of four loosely connected stories, but I didn’t pick up on that at first. Part I has four chapters — the first part of each story — and felt disjointed, like four unfinished, disconnected works with weak character development. At the close of Part I, I was enormously frustrated. I broke one of my cardinal rules and read some reviews of this book. They inspired me to continue reading, and I’m glad I did. I finished the first story in Part II and was flooded with emotion. The same thing happened with the second, third, and fourth stories. And suddenly the book made sense, and I was reminded of a quote I’d flagged early on:
There are moments when a kind of clarity comes over you, and suddenly you can see through walls to another dimension that you’d forgotten or chosen to ignore in order to continue living with the various illusions that make life, particularly life with other people, possible. (p. 14)
I found myself warming to the characters which include a writer telling her life story, an older man reflecting on his relationship with his adult son, a man who discovers a secret his wife kept from him for years, and the adult children of an antiques dealer. Woven through Great House are themes of exile, loss, and betrayal, all in a Jewish context. It was fascinating, and I kept flagging quotes like this:
What is the point of a religion that turns its back on the subject of what happens when life ends? Having been denied an answer — having been denied an answer while at the same time being cursed as a people who for thousands of years have aroused in others a murderous hate — the Jew has no choice but to live with death every day. To live with it, to set up his house in its shadow, and never to discuss its terms. (p. 175)
Towards the end I could see how Nicole Krauss was building a kind of metaphor for the Jewish experience:
if every Jewish memory were put together, every last holy fragment joined up again as one, the House would be built again, said Weisz, or rather a memory of the House so perfect that it would be, in essence, the original itself. Perhaps that is what they mean when they speak of the Messiah: a perfect assemblage of the infinite parts of the Jewish memory. (p. 279)
Well as I said, this book does make demands of the reader. I’m not even sure I understood it all, but I felt rewarded in the end.