Tuesday 20 March 2018

Review: Great House by Nicole Krauss

Penguin, €14.99, Paperback

It's not unusual for writers who are married to each other and are well-off to become literary power couples, such as Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster or Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer. But are they as good as their celebrity status would lead us to believe?

Krauss is attractive and hails from a wealthy Long Island family. She has degrees from Stanford and Oxford and lives in a multi-million dollar Brooklyn brownstone. Great House is her third novel and she can indeed write. In this new book she defies the creative-writing-class laws of not using two words when one will do by using long, eloquent sentences, many of them like multi-carriage trains carrying cargoes of grief.

The holocaust is lying beneath Krauss's narrative. It turns her characters into ghosts of their present and past, both real and imaginary, as they strive to be normal in the face of unbearable memories.

These are introverted, damaged people who seem to sleepwalk through the pages, who see shadows, who see Hitler's ghosts or maybe his real-life relatives since, she says "they are prospering in the leafy suburbs of Long Island".

In Krauss's last novel, the international bestseller The History Of Love, there were similar themes of loss but humour had a place. In Great House there is little to smile about. Instead, there is wisdom born of trauma, ways of surviving delivered Montaigne-style: "One doesn't choose between the outer and inner life; they co-exist, however poorly."

There are five strands to the novel. A writer, Nadia, tells her story of an experience which finds her in court, of a huge desk that enters and exits her life and of the writing with which she is obsessed, where "a word at last came along like a lifeboat".

A father, a ruthless control freak, tells of how he has squashed his son's fragile nature, his very self-esteem, since babyhood. "Who do you think you are?" he asks. "The hero of your own existence?" This is not easy reading. A British husband, Arthur Bender, tells of living with his wife, Lotte, a writer, who was traumatised by the memory of having left her parents to be murdered in the camps.

It was her only real regret in life, a regret of such vast proportions it couldn't be dealt with head-on."

There is Isabel, who has come to Oxford to study literature. She falls in love with Yoav Weisz, who has an odd relationship with his sister Leah. They are a mysterious pair controlled by their father, George Weisz, a famous antiques dealer who rescues furniture stolen by Nazis.

And finally, Weisz narrates his life story, explaining the origins of the hulking desk with a permanently locked drawer that dominates the book, that can be interpreted in many ways and that, as we find out, is never going to go away.

All of Krauss's narrators have distinctive voices. It's tempting to look for links between them but it is best to let them be individuals and to let them tell their stories.

Huge tracts are devoted to the idea of writing. Nadia speaks of writing "as if there were a secret to it all that might spring the lock of the safe housing the novel", and with Great House Krauss herself is springing the locks of her character's emotions in a book that needs to be read slowly in order for its wisdom to be appreciated.

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