Thursday, September 19, 2013

Great House by Nicole Krauss

Last night my Two Bichons book group discussed Great House by Nicole Krauss. It's a National Book award-winning novel constructed with four narratives that are only loosely tied to each other. The main connection is a desk with a history that includes the Holocaust, Pinochet's Chile and too many family secrets.

We compared Great House to The History of Love, another of Krauss' novels we discussed earlier in the year. Both books have themes of memory, identity and coming to terms with loss. Although both books are composed of multiple storylines about Jewish families, The History of Love is more linear and is more about the characters. In Great House, there was only one character that allowed us to get close: Aaron.

Like Leo in The History of Love, Aaron is estranged from his son. Dov and Aaron have always been like oil and water, complete opposites in temperament. Aaron envied his wife's easy understanding of their son. When Dov returns injured in body and mind from the Yom Kippur war, the father of one of Dov's dead comrades crushes his spirit further with a letter blaming him for the death, writing, "It should have been you." Years later, Aaron looks back on that difficult time, carrying on a conversation with his son in his head. "Your mother wanted to call the father in Haifa, to shout at him, to defend you. But I wouldn't let her. I grabbed her hand and pried the phone loose. It's enough, Eve, I said. His son is dead. His parents were murdered [by the Nazis] and now he has lost his only son. And you expect him to be fair? To be reasonable? Her eyes turned hard. You have more sympathy for him than you have for your own son, she spat, and walked away." Doesn't that break your heart?

I was intrigued by a university student who was obsessed with travelling light, who didn't want to be weighed down by possessions. "The only exception was books, which I acquired freely, because I never really felt they belonged to me. Because of this, I never felt compelled to finish those I didn't like, or even a pressure to like them at all. But a certain lack of responsibility also left me free to be affected. When at last I came across the right book the feeling was violent: it blew open a hole in me that made life more dangerous because I couldn't control what came through it."

Great House didn't have that kind of violent effect on me, but it was definitely invigourating. I was grateful to have other readers helping me to appreciate the impressive structure and parallels. Great House is a perfect book for discussion: challenging, beautiful, and rewarding of close examination.

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