Longlisted for the Orange Prize 2011
First and foremost, this is the most ambitious Orange longlistee of the 3 that I have read. It is also the most challenging to read. I always thought a strong contender to win this year’s prize. Now that I’ve read it, I’m officially rooting for it.
Krauss uses two increasingly popular techniques to structure the book. The first is using multiple thematically linked narratives to form a novel. It’s dodgy territory with me as a reader. I didn’t buy it with either Damon Galgut’s In A Strange Room or Daniel Kehlmann’s Fame. The second technique is the use of an artifact to form the backbone and provide the point of cohesion in the narrative. I quite liked the idea in Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room and loved it in Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation (in both cases the artifact was a house). In Great House, ironically, the artifact is not a building, but a desk; one which travels the world as it is passes from owner to owner.
As I’ve always wanted a desk of my own, I’m predisposed to Krauss’s magnificent desk with 19 drawers – an imposing piece of furniture, the centre piece of any room it occupies. I’m also satisfied that the multiple narratives form a cohesive whole. They are sufficiently lengthy to allow detailed character studies. There is time to explore the environments, timeframes and psychologies. There is absolutely no need to labour over the connections, which eventually make sense, though you have patience to stick with it and piece together the chronology. I admit to having serious doubts at the half-way point but as I was emotionally involved in one particular story, I had to know how it ended.
I am so glad I persevered, because the second half of the novel repeats the refrains and harmonises the themes in a simply virtuoso performance.
Throughout Great House we travel from New York to Chile, to London, to Budapest, to Jerusalem and back to New York. We take in dictatorships and conflicts of various hues, both political and domestic. We struggle with the owners of the desk as they put their energies into their literary creations and the cost of that to their real relationships. We also struggle with the characters themselves because, almost without exception, they are all difficult personalities. Some more than others. We experience and share their losses and at times overwhelming waves of grief. Despite their flaws, we empathise. For we all share the pain inherent in this great house of the human condition.