"Great House" is unashamedly literary in style and while undoubtedly not everyone's cup of tea, it's hard not to admire the cleverness of Krauss. It also covers such broad issues that it's not the easiest of books to sum up in a few words. Certainly, to enjoy this book you will need to have a tolerance for cerebral fiction. You will also need to appreciate the role of the book in commenting on aspects of the human condition rather than just telling a good story. This is most certainly not a plot driven book. You should also be prepared that the stories told are unremittingly dark, sad, and almost oppressively depressing. But while all of this sounds negative, the payoff is a book of exceptional cleverness and shot through with lovely and often beautifully observed writing about the human condition and in particular about memory. It would be wrong to say that it's cerebral with no heart: there's plenty of emotional heart here, but unless you buy into the cerebral game, then it's a book that will infuriate you before you reach it.
Effectively four short stories, each split into two parts, which echo into each other and overlap in different ways. Each is told from the first person perspective. It's fair to say that there isn't always as much distinction between the tones of voice as might be ideal. Some of the overlaps are obvious, or become obvious, others are more fleeting and subtle - mere suggestions. You pick up echoes of your own memories of earlier stories as the second halves unfold - they don't always come fully formed but often as fragments of a larger story - much like memory.
At the heart of the book is a great desk which both stands for the Great House symbolism of the Jewish concept, but also a term used by Freud to describe the workings of memory. It's the latter that works best for me, but Jewish readers may well get even more from the first reference as I'm sure some of the deeper symbolism went over my head a bit. The ownership of this desk though is just the link to bring the stories together and what each really explores is memory and stories - it's notable how many of the characters are writers or poets.
The stories include a reclusive writer in New York who inherits custody of the desk from a Chilean poet who is returning to fight the Pinochet regime, a London-based widower grieving for the loss of his wife (also a writer) whose life has a secret revealed to him only in his wife's Alzehimer's, a recently widowed Israeli frustrated at the lack of communication from his son, and finally another London-based story of Isabel's relationship with the strange Yoav and his equally mysterious sister, Leah both under the gaze of their furniture collecting father.
Yet none of these stories are told in a straightforward way. Krauss allows her narrators to fly around in time and to go off at tangents as they recall their stories.
If you read Krauss' last book, The History of Love then you will have a sense of her methods of story telling. If you didn't enjoy that, you will positively hate this! While there were moments of levity and lightness in The History of Love, there are none here. It's all pretty grim stuff but there is a certain beauty in the stories. Loss is a recurring theme though so it's always going to be quite dark.
It's not perfect, as I've tried to show, but it's a book that works on so many levels that the cleverness of the ideas carries through. I loved it and will certainly re-read it at a later date. If books that make you think, "I'm sure there's more to this than I'm getting" frustrate you, then this is not a book for you. But it's a book that made me think and I found involving as I tried to pin the threads together. Ideally, I'd give it four and a half stars (just some levity would have made all the difference, as would more differentiation between the narrative voices) but if you are up for a challenging book, then it has a huge amount going for it.