'He burned the house of God, the king's house, and all the houses of Jerusalem; even every great house he burned with fire.'
2 Kings 25:9 is the source for the title of Nicole Krauss's latest novel Great House and the depth and significance of that meaning rests in the final pages of the book, but when Great House first arrived in proof copy I wasn't at all sure I wanted to read it. I had dipped into the first few pages and clearly we were a mismatch, it was one of those days when I needed straightforward, uncomplicated reading.
I wonder if you know the sort of books I mean, and the nature of those reading times?
I needed clear guidance about plot and character, well-defined tracks to move along and to know what was happening and this book was giving me none, and that might be a caveat to add for anyone who is about to pick up Great House... perhaps leave it until you are in the mood for one of those cloud-of-unknowing reading experiences. Feeling completely at sea very quickly I stopped, put the book back on the shelf and may not have come back to it but for its Orange Prize longlisting, but how glad I am now to have taken the time to read it.
This is the book about a desk that I mentioned on Saturday and if I show you my traditional scribbles page inside the front cover you will see how complicated things became... look away now all book purists to whom marginalia is a heinous crime. I tend to write single words, fleeting thoughts as I read and, as I think I have mentioned before, I often start a genogram . We used them frequently back in the days of NHS health visiting in order to try and unravel complex family situations, and I find them equally useful when I'm reading a book and want to keep track of family connections and character traits. My genogram drafts and arrows and general mess whilst reading Great House would have involved a severe slapping for lack of clarity from my child protection supervisor and sent me back to the drawing board in the old days that's for sure.
And this is one of those books where I almost wanted to start with a ball of wool so that I could follow the trail back whenever I needed to, because Nicole Krauss scatters the tiniest of tantalizing clues. A name I had read before would crop up again, I'd know it had previously had a glancing and seemingly insignificant mention and suddenly it seemed crucially important that I remembered it, and I couldn't. That thread of connections at times felt gossamer fine and yes, not unlike a spider's web, to the point where I was almost fearful to put the book down in case I couldn't get my narrative bearings back again, but I was loving it.
Meanwhile the desk is the object that knots those threads together, like a trojan horse freighted not with warring humans but with warring emotional baggage and with much more than memories. It is laden with ambitions and aspiration, lies and secrets too and with links to not only the holocaust but Pinochet's regime in Chile, as it falls into the ownership or gift of Nicola Krauss's characters. From the Chilean poet Daniel Varsky to Nadia the writer living in New York whose story opens the book... and Nicole Krauss skilfully sustains the mystery of who Nadia is telling her story too and under what circumstances right to the end of the novel. Whilst the plot also shifts sideways to the ageing author Lotte Berg, living in England and now stricken with Alzheimers and thence to Israel and a father reflecting on his thorny and difficult relationship with his son.
But who is his son?
And meanwhile the desk stays in the spotlight as it is tracked down by the widowed antiques dealer George Weisz who is obsessively recreating his father's study plundered by the Nazis in 1944, and Nicole Krauss invests the desk with a varying power, sometimes benign, occasionally almost malevolent,
'It struck me, the gift of that desk, as an act of cruel genius - a way to stake his claim, to insinuate himself into the unreachable world of her imagination, so that he might possess her, so that every time she sat down to write it would be in the presence of his bestowal.'
Themes of memory and legacy, loss and possession emerge in Great House as Nicole Krauss's disparate array of seemingly unreachable, unknowable and unconnected characters, all initially charged with a sense of real enigma, slowly build up their stories; not unlike those layers of patina and polish on the old desk. No one seems to be quite true to themselves, lies and deceit prevail, self-deceipt especially evident until finally confessions reveal all and I heaved a sigh knowing that having trusted Nicole Krauss to lead me out of the other end of this book she had done so in exemplary literary style.
Digressions abound in the lives that have been touched by the desk and from the minute I opened the book until I turned the final page I had to read with patience, with diligence and in complete and undistracted quiet. Had I been in the entertainments carriage of the 7.52 Plymouth to Paddington this book would have been a dismal Kindle fail by Dawlish Warren. But as I emerged blinking into the sunlight after the final page I knew I'd read a brilliant book, that Nicole Krauss hadn't faltered or missed a beat and that the most enjoyable thing, had time permitted, would have been to turn back to the beginning and read it again.
And who'd have thought it but when Lotte's elderly husband dons his rucksack and sets out on a walking trip, well where do you think he goes?
I bet authors hate it when this happens, some know-all reader thousands of miles away who happens to live there, so I'll make light of the demoting of our nearest bustling and sizeable market town with a population of 11,000 to a village (our village on the other hand home to just over 700) because I can quite understand how confusing that whole distinction can seem from several thousand miles away, but if Lotte's ageing husband walks up to Princetown from Tavistock, the man's a good deal fitter than I am, but then that's not hard and this is fiction after all.
But as I turned the final page another thought drifted uppermost into my mind...
Fortunate and lucky indeed the Orange prize judge who may have to read Great House two if not three times more in order to make those all-important short listing decisions.