To oversimplify things, Nicole Krauss's third novel, Great House, is about a desk. Like many large, sturdy pieces of furniture, the desk changes hands several times, and the novel tells the story of four owners of the desk, scattered across time and space. But to call Great House the story of a desk and leave it at that is to do Krauss a grave disservice: The desk sits at the center of each narrative, illuminating its owners like an unholy black sun—something you can't stare at directly.
Here is how one narrator describes the desk:
An enormous, foreboding thing that bore down on the occupants of the room it inhabited, pretending to be inanimate but, like a Venus flytrap, ready to pounce on them and digest them via one of its many little terrible drawers.
All the descriptions are remarkably similar: The desk is a dark shape that seems to grow into something enormous, as if expanding to fit a room. It's snaggletoothed with too many drawers (including one locked drawer that pulls in its owner's attention like an annoying paper cut on the pad of her finger).
One way to read Great House would be as a haunted-house story, with the desk's drawers and monstrous silhouette standing in as a miniature house. There's enough Gothic imagery here to make a case for that reading. Even as the story moves to London and Jerusalem and America, it's hard not to imagine Emily Brontë's foggy moor skulking around outside every window. Sometimes the horrors even come right up to the window for an overt moment of terror, as when a young man "in a strange, almost pitiful coat with a matted fur collar" stares with "black shining eyes" at a mother and child "with the hunger of a wolf."
Great House does share an unsettling atmosphere and the occasional lurid image with Gothic novels, but that comparison is not quite right, either. One of our narrators explains helpfully that "we take comfort in the symmetries we find in life because they suggest a design where there is none"; is it too much to wonder if he is warning us to look beyond the easy tells that Krauss has planted throughout the book as a siren call to a certain kind of reading? Could there be hidden passageways in the narrative itself? She's certainly an assured enough storyteller for that to be the case.
Krauss packed the book full of real-world horrors that don't need the inky shading and ghoulish shocks of the Gothic to resonate with the reader. One character is a Chilean poet who disappears at the hands of Pinochet's thugs; another is a Jewish antique hunter who is trying to reassemble his father's study exactly as it looked before the Nazis came and took him away. Some of the horrors are personal, but still devastating: One man's wife is a famous novelist who is losing her mind to Alzheimer's disease, and the receding tides of her memory are revealing the sins of her past.
The fourth story, concerning another novelist, deals with a more vaporous terror. She lives a lonely life in New York City (it's the kind of crowded lonely existence that can seemingly only be lived in New York City), sometimes married, sometimes not. She quietly mines the world for tragedies she can use in her stories. One acquaintance tells a story at a dinner party about childhood friends who came to a tragic end: His friend's mother, who originally seemed merely eccentric, gave her children sleeping pills, drove them to the forest, covered the car in gasoline, and lit them all on fire. All three burned to death.
The novelist promptly does what novelists do: turn the story into a novel. And the guilt begins to haunt her:
The next day, passing the super in the lobby, I thought I heard him say, You make good use of death. I stopped and spun around. What did you say? I demanded. He looked me over calmly, and I thought I saw the hint of a smirk at the corners of his mouth. They're fixing the roof on the tenth, he said. Lots of noise, he added, and clanged the gate of the service elevator shut.
Though Krauss keeps your rapt attention the whole way through, no one story in Great House dominates the others. Like a Bruegel painting mentioned near the center of the book—"overrun with a stampede of human life, so exquisitely small and yet not one life overlooked, each measured and considered"—every story is equally important. (The nonlinear structure of the stories, with each of the four narratives split in half and then scattered out of numeric order at the halfway mark as though to further unlock the reader in time, makes this point handily.) In the end, the one consistent element in the reader's experience, the one thing that makes all the disparate stories of guilt and loss and heartbreak work together in shaping the novel into something gorgeous and towering, is that damned desk. Haunted or not, we have to cling to it the way her characters do, and in so doing, Krauss makes us a part of her story.