I picked up Great House after it was named on the Orange Prize longlist in April and probably wouldn’t have thought about reading it otherwise. Based on what I had heard about the book before I started reading it I suspected I wouldn’t enjoy it, but I wanted to give it a try anyway. I liked the central concept of a number of different people being linked by an item of furniture (a desk) and was curious to see how this would work. Having read the book, though, it would be inaccurate to describe it as ‘a book about a desk’ – in fact, in several of the book’s eight sections the desk is barely mentioned at all.
The novel is made up of four separate stories, with two chapters devoted to each one. The first story is narrated by Nadia, an author living in New York, who receives a writing desk from a Chilean poet, Daniel Varsky. At the end of the first chapter we leave Nadia behind for a while and move to Israel, where we meet Aaron and learn about the difficult relationship he has with his son, Dov. Next the action switches to England and our third narrator, Arthur, who tells us about his wife, Lotte. Lotte, another writer, has a secret which is only revealed as she grows older and begins to suffer from Alzheimer’s. The fourth storyline involves Izzy and her relationship with Yoav and Leah Weisz, the son and daughter of a collector of antique furniture.
There are some themes that recur throughout most or all of these four narratives: authors, relationships between parents and children, loss and memories. All four storylines interested me but the one that I found the most engaging was Aaron’s. I thought his voice was the strongest of all the narrators; the others were not as easy to distinguish between.
Great House is a novel that requires a lot of patience and concentration. The ways in which the four stories are linked are not immediately obvious and you need to read the entire book to be able to fit the various pieces of the puzzle together. Although I didn’t enjoy it enough to want to read it again, it’s a book that would almost certainly benefit from a re-read. Even reading slowly and making a few notes as I went along there were still things that didn’t quite make sense to me, but I think if I started the book again with my knowledge of the later sections I should be able to pick up on little details in the earlier chapters that I’d missed the first time.
The quality of the writing is excellent; there were sentences that were so beautifully constructed that I had to go back and read them twice. It’s a clever book and definitely not an easy read, but one that leaves the reader with a lot to think about, and although the book wasn’t really to my taste it’s undeniably a very impressive novel.