Review: Great House

Nicole Krauss enhances her reputation with an intense novel that stands comfortably alongside 'by Nicole KraussThe History of Love'

By David Herman, February 18, 2011
Nicole Krauss: her new novel, though dark and violent, glows with touches of greatness

Nicole Krauss: her new novel, though dark and violent, glows with touches of greatness

by Nicole Krauss
Viking, £16.99

How do you follow a novel like The History of Love, that rare thing an international bestseller and huge critical hit. Five years later, its author Nicole Krauss answers the question with Great House, and what is immediately striking is both how similar it is… and how very different.

What was immediately clear from The History of Love (her second novel) was that Krauss is an extraordinarily gifted ventriloquist. She managed to get into the heads of Leo Gursky, an old Jewish refugee from east Europe, and Alma, an awkward teenage girl from New York, bringing both to life.

Great House also has a number of very different narrators: Nadia, a young writer living in New York; Aaron, an old Israeli, mourning the death of his wife and desperate to connect to his son, Dov, estranged since the Yom Kippur War; Arthur, a retired Oxford don, married for almost 50 years to the intense Lotte Berg, a Jewish writer who came to England with the Kindertransport; Izzy, an Oxford student who falls in love with the somewhat strange Israeli, Yoav Weisz. And there is one other narrator, the most compelling of all, but to say more would give away too much.

Like The History of Love, Great House relates a search. It is a book full of mystery and suspense, building towards one of the great climaxes in contemporary fiction.

It becomes clear early on that this search involves a special piece of furniture - a huge desk - that links many of the characters and signifies the haunting power of the past. Great House is largely about loss, with what one character calls "the dark ruins of history" - the terrible toll from the Holocaust to Pinochet's Chile to the Middle East.

This is a novel in mourning. Almost every character has lost someone - a wife, parents, estranged children. Sometimes, this drives the sufferer to a breakdown, or to build an emotional wall to keep others out.

Though The History of Love, too, was a book about loss and suffering - who has suffered more than Leo Gursky, torn from his family, his lover, his best friend and his manuscript? - it was essentially warm, and even humorous.

In that sense, Great House could not be more different. Dark and dense, it is at times even scary. Throughout, fragments of violence and terror erupt from nowhere.

In particular, the novel is full of encounters with strange children - a brother and sister who everyone else thinks are having an incestuous relationship; two children who kill a third; two others burned to death by their mother in the woods.

The storytelling can be hit-and-miss. Some characters, even some of the main characters, are not engaging creations. It is not just that they aren't as warm as Leo Gursky; they are just not interesting enough in themselves. As a result, whole chunks of the second half drift and feel inert. But other characters are unforgettable and there is no mistaking the novel's ambitious scope, its confrontation with great issues on a vast, historical canvas.

And, at her best, as she is in the several stories-within-stories that erupt into the larger narrative, Krauss is outstanding.

Despite its faults, it is hard to imagine a better book of fiction being published this year. The climax alone shows Nicole Krauss to be one of the finest writers of our time.

Nicole Krauss will speak about 'Great House' at Jewish Book Week on March 1. David Herman is the JC's chief fiction reviewer

Last updated: 3:48pm, February 18 2011