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Fiction

Great House by Nicole Krauss

“I would probably feel the same way as you did. Hence I am not reading the book no matter how great ppl say it is.”

It is quite disturbing to know that was my comment last November 2010 in one of blogger’s review on this book! Now I have to eat my own words. What made me change my mind? I guess it is because I wanted to read a few more shortlists and this seems to appeal to me than the rest.

The book opens with 50-something Nadia (Book Chapter: All Rise), a solitary novelist living in New York. She is explaining her life to someone she addresses as “Your Honor.” She contemplates the death of her marriage, her needs for privacy. Next we are with Aaron (Book Chapter: True Kindness), an elderly Israeli reflecting upon the death of his beloved wife and his strained relationship with his son, Dova’leh. He has another son Uri who seems to be the normal one and Dov who is quiet child who seems to know more than his age. Next is Arthur Bender–British and proper (Book Chapter: Swimming Holes), the insecure husband of Holocaust survivor Lotte Berg, a woman with secrets that she wished not to talk about until the day she died. And finally we hear from Isabel, or Izzy (Book Chapter: Lies told by Children), an Oxford Student, the youngest and sexiest of the narrators, who is hopelessly in love with Yoav Weisz, albeit a slightly surreal love affair. The Weiszes are dominated by their strict father, a man who specialises in tracking down furniture confiscated from Jews during the second world war. The desk becomes a pawn in the struggle between father and the children.

In the second portion of the book, we spend some time with each of them again with the same chapter header related to the protagonist repeating itself, except for chapter Lies told by Children.

I read The History of Love last October 2010 and even draw a chart to clear my mind. Here Krauss does what she does best, weaving complex characters together, with an object as centrepiece of the story narrating the loss and pain of protagonist who ponders on love and death. Sounds familiar? In this case the two books run on a similar theme.

It’s a book which is very hard for me to sum up, so here are my fragmented thoughts:

On stories:

I did enjoy the book at the beginning. Taking my time to read the pages and savouring the thoughts that seems to come out from the deepest recesses of these characters’ minds is one that Krauss do it beautifully in this book, 5 years on more mature and controlled than The History of Love. Told through a third person, all the main characters are very similar in their dispositions: they are traumatised by their past, they find it hard to communicate to their partners and fathers, almost as if they are crippled from their hereditary effect of the Holocaust. There is always a writer, a desk, all things literary between them. I thought all stories were intriguing and I was quite pleasantly surprised with the sexy bit with Izzy and Yoav. Krauss has an acute observation in the tension of strict Jewish family and if you ever brought up in a very strict and regimented family you can sense the accuracy of descriptions of the lies and tension that Yoav and sister Lisa has to live with, in the presence of their father, George.

I wonder what is the significance of the desk?

May contain spoilers. 

Same as The History of Love I’ll drop a quick chart on what happened to the desk.

Great House centres on a massive writer’s desk. Filled with 19 awkwardly shaped drawers, one of which is never unlocked, it is “an enormous, foreboding thing that bore down on the occupants of a room”. The desk has come to be vitally important, if sometimes obliquely, to four different characters, who each tell their stories in meditative style, or stream of consciousness for lack of the better word.

The desk links the lives of Jews who lived around the world and it signifies the global scale of hurt and impact of the Holocaust on victims’ lives who live to tell the story.

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. – page 279. 

On the ending:

If you don’t connect the relationships between the characters at the beginning clearly, albeit a subtle one, chances are, like me you won’t be able to grasp the closure of the ending. Up to 90% of the book right till the final chapter, there exists a mystery heavily shrouded on all four individuals. As a reader when you read this far, you expect it to have a proper closure. Yet, there isn’t a proper closure. Krauss has written a very complicated collection of stories and I expect it to make sense when combined. But it doesn’t. This is one niggling thing that frustrates me and makes me wonder as a reader will I be able to live with that?

To encapsulate….

Great House in the tradition of Krauss is multi-layered, deep, serious, written with great yearning. Like The History of Love requires a second read. There are some heartbreaking scenes that makes my heart sigh (the scene of washing up a defecated father, being humiliated as being too old as a lover, a son’s bereavement that he should have died instead of his friend etc.) There are the nods that acknowledged what happens when a traumatised person wish to live a normal life, I just wish the story line would have been tighter and it would have been great.

Great House appeals to mature readers who resonate with the emotions of the characters. Great House seems to be the sort of books that would win the Man Booker or Pulitzer Prizes but I’m not sure if it would win the Orange Prize. Many orange prize winners’ books have high readability and appeal to a wider audience, not just literary ones. For this reason, I refrain to say this one will win.

Rating: 

For writing alone this book scores a 5-stars from me but it fall short in other places. I am willing to live with the fact that the stories of the four individuals are not going to arrive at a tidy end and that you don’t pour your darkest secrets to ‘Your Honour’. 😉 I like this better than The History of Love.

What is more important to you: writing or story? 

As always, there are a huge chunk of materials of beautiful quotes from Nicole Krauss. If you like to skip this bit and let me know how you feel about the book, please feel free to do so!

The writer should not be cramped by the possible consequences of her work. She has no duty to earthly accuracy or verisimilitude. She is not an accountant; nor is she required to be something as ridiculous and misguided as a moral compass. In her work the writer is free of laws. But in her life, Your Honor, she is not free. – page 28 

Like most music that affects me deeply, I would never listen to it while others were around, just as I would not pass on a book that I especially loved to another. I am embarrassed to admit this, know that it reveals some essential lack or selfishness in my nature , and aware that it runs contrary to the instincts of most, whose passion for something leads them to want to share it. To ignite a similar passion in others, and that without the benefit of such enthusiasm I would still be ignorant of many of the books and much of the music I love most. But rather than an expansion, I’ve always felt a diminishment of my own pleasure when I’ve invited someone else to take part in it, a rupture in the intimacy I felt with the work, an invasion of privacy. – page 31 (Do you ever feel this way?) 🙂 

I began to suspect that instead of exposing the hidden depths of things, as all along I’d supposed I was doing, perhaps the opposite was true, that I’d been hiding behind the things I wrote, using them to obscure a secret lack, a deficiency I’d hidden from others all my life, and, by writing, had kept, even from myself. A deficiency that became larger as the years passed and harder to conceal, making my work more and more difficult. What sort of deficiency? I suppose you could call it a deficiency of spirit. Of strength, of vitality, of compassion, and because of this, welded to it, a deficiency of effect. – page 36 

There is a fallacy that the powerful emotion of youth mellows with time. Not true. One learns to control and suppress it. But it doesn’t lessen. It simply hides and concentrates itself in more discreet places. When one accidentally stumbles into one of these abysses, the pain is spectacular. I find these little abysses everywhere now. – page 55 

From a young age, you tirelessly searched for and collected suffering. Of course it isn’t that simple. One doesn’t choose between the outer and the inner life; they coexist, however poorly. The question is: Where does one place the emphasis? – page 68 

I came to believe that one –the factual circumstances of my life were almost accidental and didn’t grow out of my own soul, and two, I possessed something unique, a special strength and a depth of feeling that would allow me to withstand the hurt and injustice without being broken by it. In the worst moments I only needed to pull myself beneath the surface, to dive down and touch the place within here this mysterious giftedness lived in me, and so long as I found it I knew that one day I would escape their world and make my life in another. – page 200

and my favourite of all passages…

We search for patterns, you see,
Only to find where the patterns break.
And it’s there, in that fissure,
that we pitch our tents and wait.

Other views:

The Hungry Reader: These are confessions. They are at times difficult to read. You won’t always understand the actions of the characters, but you will believe them. And you will feel their pain and the power of their stories and the beauty of Nicole Krauss’s words.

Literary Stew: Great House is an exceptionally unique and very, very clever book. This is one book where somehow knowing the ending will bring a deeper understanding to the whole. And that’s why I’ll just have to read this again.
Amy Reads: So, in the end, a book that I know a lot of people will love but I just can’t recommend with much enthusiasm because I just couldn’t connect with it.

Nomad Reader: While I adored Krauss’s writing, the story failed to resonate much with me after the first part. Recommended for fans of short stories and literary fiction, but novel lovers may find there’s not enough connectedness in these interconnected stories.

Chinoiseries: Admittedly, I only skimmed the last 100 to 150 pages because I don’t think I could have dragged myself through even more self-pitying, soul-searching nonsense from either of the book’s characters.  In my opinion, Great House has aimed a little too high and ended up an utter disappointment.

Sakura @ Chasing bawa: Yet, although it took me a couple of weeks to finish this book, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And for me, that is one sign that the book has sunk its claws into me. I really loved this book.

Hardback. Publisher: Penguin Viking 201o; Length: 289 pages ; Setting: 1940’s to contemporary New York and Jerusalem. Source: Reading Battle Library. Finished reading on: 3 June 2011.

Great House was named a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award in Fiction on October 13, 2010.

Listen to Nicole Krauss’ interview on the book and on burden of inheritance and what and how we pass down to our children..

Notice she said she wrote this book as a mystery to her own and as a result a mystery to the reader. Her doubt became the characters’ doubts and to stake one stand in the midst of uncertainty… ooo… this is deep. Alternatively read the transcript here.

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About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.

Discussion

7 thoughts on “Great House by Nicole Krauss

  1. I love the desk chart! I also love your review and agree that this would do well in the Booker, if it were eligible. I think this will win the Orange and look forward to seeing if it does. 🙂

    Posted by Jackie (Farm Lane Books) | June 6, 2011, 9:32 pm
    • Jackie, I am betting my money for Great House to win the booker if she gets shortlisted! This is fun, I may want to read the Booker shortlist soon but not as soon as you would though. You are far better at predicting than me! 😉

      Posted by JoV | June 6, 2011, 10:17 pm
  2. I don’t think it is eligible for the Booker because Krauss is American. Does she have dual nationality?

    Posted by Jackie (Farm Lane Books) | June 7, 2011, 7:07 am

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: The Weekend Before Orange Prize Winner 2011 Announcement « Bibliojunkie - June 4, 2011

  2. Pingback: The Weekend Before Orange Prize Winner 2011 Announcement « Bibliojunkie - June 30, 2011

  3. Pingback: Halfway there.. It’s a wrap: June 2011 « Bibliojunkie - June 30, 2011

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Mockingjay
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City


JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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