Joe Jacobs, a Jewish ex-refugee now turned poet, and his wife Isabel, a war correspondent, are holidaying in the south of France with their fourteen year old daughter, Nina. They have been joined by their old friends, Mitchell and Laura who run a failing souvenir shop near Kings Cross, London. One afternoon, they find a young, naked Kitty Finch swimming in the pool of their hired villa. Isabel, without consultation with the others, invites Kitty to stay and so begins the fragmentation of the group. Kitty’s penchant for naturalism, coupled with her mental health problems, breakdown the controlled order of those around her.
Whilst Kitty appears to be a very fragile character, her underlying determination shines through. ‘Swimming Home’ is the title of Kitty’s poem, a poem based on her thoughts that: ‘Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we'll all get home safely.’ She is so desperate for Joe to read it, that she’s deliberately tracked him down on holiday.
This is a story of the devastating effects of depression and how it ripples through family, friends and the community however the story is so subtly told that it lacks strength at times.
The theme of the story is great but the characters surrounding the main protagonist, Kitty, are too understanding and in this way the novel lacks a sense of reality. Having said that, it is interesting in the way in which Kitty is able to connect to the people around her and by drawing them out, she is able to show to them their own unbalance world. Her relationship with Joe is tragic in many senses of the word and can leave question marks as to the reality of this relationship.
Being selected as Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime also shows how quietly and subtly the subject matter has been dealt with, which in itself, may not be a good advert.
Alison OREilly 1/10/2012
Great House by Nicole Krauss
This terrific book centres on the stories of five narrators, who are completely unrelated, but whose lives have been, or will be, influenced in someway by an overbearingly large desk.
Nadia begins the novel with her account of her life. She is a fairly successful writer living in New York and is introduced to Daniel Varsky, a Chilean poet, who asks Nadia to look after his desk whilst he returns to Chile. Daniel never returns but his desk serves as a memory that haunts Nadia for the rest of her life.
The narrative is then handed to Aaron, an elderly Israeli lawyer, who lives in Jerusalem and who’s wife has just died. Aaron is joined at his wife’s funeral by his youngest son, Dov, who has returned after many years of living in the UK. Aaron has never understood Dov as Dov, even as a young boy, was unable to communicate his feelings. Rarely do the two men speak to each other but their lives change forever when Nadia arrives in Jerusalem.
The third narrator is Izzy, an American student who’s studying at Oxford. She tells how she falls in love with Yoav, who has a very close relationship – and some say too close - with his sister Leah. The two siblings spent their formative years travelling the world with their father, George Wiesz, an antiques dealer, which has made them both very insular.
The very kindly Arthur Bender enters the story. Arthur is married to another writer, a German Jew called Lotte Berg who arrived in Britain as a war refugee and who is incrediably secretive. Lotte, like Nadia, spends her life writing on the same massive and forbidding desk until one day Arthur returns home to find that Lotte has given the desk away to a stranger. Stunned, but knowing that Lotte doesn’t like to be questioned, Arthur doesn’t say too much. But it’s when Lotte begins to suffer from Alzheimer’s that she lets slip that she had given birth to a child after she arrived in Britain and had given the baby away for adoption. This sends Arthur reeling so after Lotte death, he begins to delve into her past life.
Finally the book leaves us with the narrative from George Wiesz who had spent his life tracking down antiques and artworks for those who had escaped the Nazis and had been forced to leave their treasured belongings behind. When George hears of the whereabouts of the desk, he sets his sights on procuring it.
The author, Nicole Krause, has used quite a diverse range of characters who are all involved in a mystery of some kind, whether directly or by association. Aaron is the strongest character with his forthright ways and grumpy attitude, whilst the other characters appear, at times, a little too docile except for George Wiesz who, as he quietly deals with the antiques, likes to control people’s minds.
This book is fascinating. The insight into Israeli life not only made the story more credible but was also a bit of an education. The book is called Great House in reference to the burning the Temple – great house – in Jerusalem and the Jewish belief that each Jewish soul can recall to mind a fragment of the Temple thereby enabling the reconstruction of the Temple again, albeit in a collective memory. The whole book is about memories and how feelings are provoked and relived by those memories which are often provoked by possessions. There are many twists and turns in the novel and the plot certainly gets your mind racing as you try to second guess the author’s plotline. But the plotline is not straight forward and warrants a second reading. But that doesn’t make it a bad book, in fact it’s quite ingenious and a refreshing exercise for the mind plus it has good filmatic potential.
Alison OReilly 31/3/2012