Great House: A Novel by Nicole Krauss (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. 289 pp)

Nicole Krauss is an American novelist whose works include, Great House, a finalist for the National Book Award and the Orange Prize, and The History of Love, which won the Saroyan Prize for International Literature and France’s Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger. Krauss was selected as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists and was chosen by The New Yorker for their “Twenty Under Forty” list.

Burning Down and Building Up

“And he burned the house of the LORD and the king’s house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down. 2 Kings 25:9”

The history of Israel repeats from generation to generation. In fact, the Old Testament’s central thesis centers on the idea of the chosen people, their covenant with God, the many times they fall on their face, and God’s faithfulness no matter how dire their circumstances.

The Jewish diaspora has suffered, has spread across the world, and has encountered the scars of some of the worst atrocities in history. These people get burned down. These people build life back up.

Sometimes life is as simple as the place you live. And a residence carries no meaning without furnishings.

A Desk

In this roundabout way, Nicole Krauss approaches the pain and hope of the Jewish diaspora through a desk. Great House upholds the current short-stories-connected-together-to-make-a-novel trend where the main character is actually a desk, passed around after the destruction of World War II.

This robust piece of furniture tells quite a story, given the many lives it has led. Novelists write novels:

“I looked across the room at the wooden desk at which I had written seven novels, and on whose surface, in the cone of light cast by a lamp, lay the piles of pages and notes that were to constitute an eighth. One drawer was slightly ajar, one of the nineteen drawers, some small and some large, whose odd number and strange array, I realized now, on the cusp of their being suddenly taken from me, had come to signify a kind of guiding if mysterious order in my life, an order that, when my work was going well, took on an almost mystical quality” (16).

The desk becomes a background object, so stuck it’s not noticed when it’s moved on as a gift to another:

“It was months before I realized that she had given him her desk. I only found out because I noticed that a table we kept in the cellar was missing. I asked her if she’d seen it, and she told me she was using it as a desk. But you have a desk, I said, stupidly. I gave it away, she said” (97).

The desk also manifests the completion of a great house, the way it was before the atrocities of fascism:

“For forty years my father labored to reassemble that lost room, just as it looked until that fateful day in 1944. As if by putting all the pieces back together he might collapse time and erase regret. The only thing missing in the study on Ha’Oren Street was my grandfather’s desk—where it should have stood, there was a gaping hole” (116).

The Way We Live Says It All

In all, Great House forces us to consider the lives we lead and the relationships we build. Some have been taken for granted; some unravel at the seams; some just need to move on. A desk sits in the background as lives unfold.

Krauss writes beautiful prose and I enjoyed Great House in concept. But this novel never quite caught my attention. I want to take note of Krauss and return to her catalog soon given her talent, but Great House aims for the largest themes and sometimes loses the reader in the process.

Verdict: 2.5 out of 5

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