Daily Archives: May 8, 2011

Book Review: Great House by Nicole Krauss

Title: Great House
Author: Nicole Krauss
Publisher: Penguin Books
ISBN: 9780670919338
PP: 289
Genre: Literary Fiction
Price: Rs. 599
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

I read The History of Love back in 2006. That was the beginning of my crush on Nicole Krauss. After that, I back-tracked and read her almost-as-delightful debut novel, Man Walks into a Room. Suffice it to say, I’ve been looking forward to Great House for a long time. Truthfully, this latest novel is my least favorite of the three. You’ll note that I still awarded it five stars. I don’t think Nicole Krauss is capable of publishing a novel worth less than five stars. Her writing is gorgeous. And her insight into complex emotional lives is dazzling. It’s not that Great House isn’t, well, great, but it is challenging.

If you flip through the pages of the book, you’ll notice something right away. The text is dense. There is virtually no white space on the pages, just long, almost unbroken paragraphs that make up a series of monologues. Or perhaps “confessions” is the more accurate word. The novel is structured in two parts. Each of those parts is comprised of four lengthy monologues–with the exception of the novel’s powerful final pages.

The book opens with 50-something Nadia, a solitary novelist living in New York. She is explaining her life to someone she addresses as “Your Honor.” Next we are with Aaron, an elderly Israeli reflecting upon the death of his beloved wife and his strained relationship with his son, Dov. Next is Arthur Bender–British and proper, the insecure husband of Holocaust survivor Lotte Berg, a woman with secrets. And finally we hear from Izzy, the youngest and sexiest of the narrators. Izzy is recounting a very slightly surreal love affair. In the second portion of the book, we spend some time with each of them again.

There is much talk amongst readers about a desk being the object that connects these diverse characters through distance and time. That’s not actually true. There are connections of varying subtlety, and the desk is one part of what connects some, but not all, of these characters. As Lance Armstrong might say, “It’s not about the desk.” It’s not even about the connections, really. Or, at least, I don’t believe that’s the point.

I got to know these characters reading Great House. I learned what propelled them, who they loved, what made them hurt. Especially what made them hurt, because there’s a lot of pain and sorrow and regret in these pages. These narrators are not cute, not joyful, and often not even very likeable. Nadia describes herself as “a person who was always falling through the ice, who had the opposite effect on others, immediately making them raise their hackles, as if they sensed their shins might be kicked.” And just as I began to warm to Aaron, it became clear that he was something of a monster. These are confessions. They are at times difficult to read. You won’t always understand the actions of the characters, but you will believe them. And you will feel their pain and the power of their stories and the beauty of Nicole Krauss’s words.

You can purchase the book on Flipkart


Book Review: The Four Stages of Cruelty by Keith Hollihan

Title: The Four Stages of Cruelty
Author: Keith Hollihan
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press / Thomas Dunne Books
Genre: Crime Fiction, Literary Fiction
ISBN: 978-0-312-59247-9
PP: 304 Pages
Source: Author
Price: $25.99
Rating: 5/5

“Four Stages of Cruelty” is a precise description of life behind bars as seen through both the prisoner’s and the guard’s viewpoints. It’s chilling. Kali is one of the few female guard’s at her facility and she feels like an outsider. Nineteen year old Josh is one of the youngest and newest prisoners and is completely lost as he tries to settle into life behind bars. Hollihan tells his story through both Kali and Josh’s eyes though Josh’s voice rings truer.

Josh’s next door cellmate Crawley has drawn a cartoon booklet and when feels his life is endangered he gives it to Josh for safekeeping. Josh doesn’t know what the drawings mean but senses they’re important so he tries to pass the booklet to Kali when she escorts him to his father’s funeral. Kali refuses to take it but continues to worry about its significance. She begins to investigate as riots break out in the prison knowing the booklet and the escalating violence are related.

How can you tell who’s right and wrong when everyone around you seems to have ulterior motives? What is the nature of evil and goodness, and who gets to define that and why? Are people capable of lasting change or will they take advantage of you for being compassionate?

The lines between good and bad are constantly blurred in this novel, and the tension comes from guard Kali Williams’ struggle with the byzantine interests at play within the prison and what those interests say about the more nefarious aspects of human nature. The dialogue is spot-on and Hollihan’s writing is so convincing, I thought he had to have been a corrections officer or convict in a previous life (he’s just talented as hell and did incredible research, it turns out).

I like both literary and crime fiction, but I really love novels that blur the lines between those uber-genres. This is one of those books. In some ways it reminded me of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (Kali Williams as Marlowe), but it also had the kinetic energy of a James Ellroy novel.

There are lots of twists and turns and a great ending in this book. Hollihan is very successful in keeping the reader’s interest though Kali comes across as a bit mechanical. His play with who is more imprisoned, the jailer or the jailed, is fascinating and clearly delineated; the best part of the book in my opinion. I can’t wait to read more from Hollihan.

You can also purchase the book here on Flipkart