Her­itage home

Novel traces house’s his­tory back through gen­er­a­tions

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS -

THE Hun­dred-Year House, Re­becca Makkai’s lat­est novel and the fol­lowup to 2011’s crit­i­cally ac­claimed The Bor­rower, pre­sents a per­fectly lovely prob­lem to the weary, book­worn re­viewer: find­ing some­thing — any­thing — to cri­tique.

It’s a won­der­ful novel, as beau­ti­fully writ­ten as it is painstak­ingly plot­ted, with the struc­ture to please any lit­er­ary critic, and a story ab­sorb­ing enough to sat­isfy the most rav­en­ous reader. While House boasts an im­pres­sive list of pro­tag­o­nists span­ning a century, the novel is re­ally about the house it­self: Lau­relfield, to be pre­cise, built just out­side Chicago “in the English coun­try style” and named “like pets” by the Devohr fam­ily of Toronto. The novel be­gins in 1999, but sub­se­quent sec­tions take the reader pro­gres­sively back in time — to 1955,1 then 1929, then 1900 — so that the nar­ra­tive be­gins with a mys­tery and un­folds the an­swers in stages as the reader stepss deeper into the past. While you don’t need to have read themt to ap­pre­ci­ate House, a long list of great house nov­els is ref­er­enced in this one. Makkai nods to Jane Eyre’s woman in the at­tic, to Re­becca and Wuther­ing Heights,H and the whole tra­di­tion of Bri­tishis manor-house mys­ter­ies, com­plete with up­stairs-down­stairs pol­i­tics, fills in the back­ground. You know im­me­di­ately wherew you are when you be­gin read­ing House — but you can’t as­sume you know where you’ll go. Part of the beauty of this novel is in its trans­for­ma­tive power: over time the house takes on new as­pects, and its in­hab­i­tants un­dergo pro­found shifts.

Lau­relfield’s story tech­ni­cally be­gins in 1900 with the sui­cide of the beau­ti­ful first lady of Lau­relfield, Vi­o­let Devohr; but the novel starts in 1999 with Vi­o­let’s great­grand­daugh­ter Zilla mov­ing into the coach house on the es­tate. Zilla’s hus­band, Doug, is re­search­ing the poet Ed­win Parfitt, who had vis­ited the es­tate dur­ing its ten­ure as an artists’ colony be­tween 1920 and 1955, pro­duc­ing just a few bril­liant po­ems be­fore his own pre­ma­ture death. Ex­ac­er­bated by se­crets, ten­sions be­tween Zilla and Doug — and Zilla and her mother, Grace — build to the break­ing point. The fol­low­ing three sec­tions ex­plore first Grace’s ex­pe­ri­ence, then Ed­win’s — and fi­nally, fi­nally, that of the dark-eyed, haunted Vi­o­let Devohr. Makkai’s writ­ing is ef­fort­lessly po­etic. The house, she writes, “seemed as much alive on the in­side as on the leafy out­side — the way the wood of the door frames con­tracted in win­ter and ex­panded in sum­mer, the way the glass on these stair­case win­dows was thicker at the bot­tom than at the top, from the slow, liq­uid pull of a century.” But the pace of House never slows to a slog — Makkai keeps things mov­ing, fo­cus­ing on the de­tails that illuminate char­ac­ter. Zilla, for ex­am­ple, is ob­sessed with her pre­de­ces­sors’ known in­san­ity, and her slow arc to­ward mad­ness is all the more de­li­cious for its in­evitabil­ity, ex­pressed through her am­bi­tion, her ma­nia to con­trol: “She was get­ting ev­ery­thing she wanted, but also — like in a nightmare, where you’re the au­thor and also the vic­tim — she was get­ting ev­ery­thing she feared.... She thought, I need to be care­ful what I fear next. And then she thought: What I fear next is mad­ness. What I fear next is mad­ness.” But while The Hun­dred-Year House is de­li­ciously en­ter­tain­ing, it has a few the­ses about his­tory, about ghost sto­ries, that have their own merit. Why don’t we fear ghosts from the fu­ture? Why do we fetishize the past? “We aren’t haunted by the dead, but by the im­pos­si­ble reach of his­tory,” writes Makkai. “By how un­know­able these oth­ers are to us, how un­fath­omable we’d be to them.” Rare in­deed is the novel that com­bines beau­ti­ful prose with ideas as ro­bust as those on dis­play in The Hun­dred-Year House — not to men­tion a story like a set of Pen­rose stairs, con­nected in the most play­ful, the most sur­pris­ing of ways.

Juli­enne Isaacs is a Win­nipeg-based writer and edi­tor.

PHILIPPE MAT­SAS / OPALE

Re­becca Makkai weaves ref­er­ences to other great house nov­els into her lat­est book.

The Hun­dredHun­dred-Year

House

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