I started reading Nicole Krauss's Great House directly after finishing Jonathan Franzen's “Freedom” (blogged here). The contrast was jarring. In some ways the two books are quite similar, since both are about relationships – husbands and wives, parents and children. And neither follows a linear time line, instead jumping forward and backward, telling the story in fragments. But in Franzen's book the characters are all connected to each other, while in “Great House” there are four distinct groups of characters and storylines which initially seem unrelated. At first I thought I was reading short stories, but gradually threads begin to connect, most notably a large desk which figures in three of the four plot lines.
Franzen lards his story with the details of everyday life. If you remember Joey's retrieval of his wedding ring you'll know what I'm talking about. But Krauss's characters, although they exist in real places (Manhattan, Jerusalem. London) at real times, seem almost like characters in fables, sometimes acting in a way that seems dreamlike.
I started taking notes about each story, because I felt that clues were being dropped that would help me solve the mystery that would tie everything up neatly at the end. But Krauss is much too good a writer to go for an obvious tidy ending, and although some threads did weave together, others did not - or did I miss something? But themes did emerge that united the stories – the power and the burden of memory, the crushing pain of loss, the difficulty in truly knowing another human being, even a loved one.
I missed the humor that lightened the dark story Krauss told in her previous book, “The History of Love” - this one is unrelentingly serious. But its haunting images are powerful and hard to forget.