Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Hundred-Year House (Rebecca Makkai)

This is one of those books I'm going to have difficulty describing, isn't it? And it's delightful that that's the case, really it is. I loved this book dearly, so thanks to NetGalley and Edelweiss for the opportunity to read it in exchange for an unbiased review.

Laurelfield is an estate in the Chicago area owned by the Devohrs, an illustrious Toronto family. At the beginning of the novel, in 1999, it's owned by Gracie, who has lived there for about forty years, and the servants' quarters are occupied by her daughter Zee and her husband Doug. Zee is a Marxist theory English professor and Doug is...in progress. He's been working on a thesis about the fictional poet Edwin Parfitt for years, but he can't seem to actually get it done. He finds out that Laurelfield used to be an artists' colony, one visited by Parfitt several times before his suicide, and he becomes obsessed with the idea that there might be undiscovered manuscripts or early drafts of poems that he could use for his biography. For Doug, the secrets of Laurelfield could make his career.

Gracie's second husband, Bruce, invites his son and daughter-in-law to live in the servants' quarters, too. Miriam, the daughter-in-law, is an artist who specializes in what I guess could be called "junk art" if you're being cruel and "works made from recycled materials" if you want to be nice, collages of old fabric and things lying about the house. Doug and Miriam form a fast friendship (is it more?) and he initiates her into the mysteries of Edwin Parfitt and Laurelfield. They band together to investigate the mystery of Laurelfield's (potentially haunted) past while Y2K rushes ever nearer and their tightly-wound relationships begin to unravel.

And then halfway through the book, we're 40 years earlier, and before the novel has ended, we've jumped twice more. Of course, the cast of characters change from jump to jump. Perhaps that will frustrate some readers, but Makkai is more than capable of using the technique: each section features characters fully realized, so lifelike that you'll want to hug them and slap them for being so silly and stupid and human. I am in awe of the author's power here, because I have read too many books with a single cast of characters that is paper-thin and annoyingly unrealistic, but Makkai chews her way through several, all to the same dazzling effect.

The backwards-moving narrative choice is a bold one, but it's rewarding. There are always secrets being uncovered, secrets that are all the more exciting to discover in retrospect (rather than a character in the present saying "Oh, this is the secret"). That's a horrifyingly vague sentence, but I daren't try to clarify for fear of spoiling what is, in the end, some really excellent plotting. The author's structuring is clever and daring.

The Hundred-Year House is also funny. Dialogue is sharp and it crackles; there aren't lame jokes here that will make you moan or roll your eyes. The characters are weirdos and they get into weird situations (like a pro-pornography campaign) and it's funny. Perhaps section 2 isn't all that humorous, but it more than compensates by being heartbreaking, painful and honest. Rarely do I read something about an issue (like drug addiction or depression, but the issue in question is neither of those) and feel rewarded, because usually the writers behind them are preachy and determined to educate me. Makkai never goes there; she sets up her characters and lets them go, lets their drama and misery unfold in front of us to learn what we will from it.

I've done a lot of positive raving here, but I'm not sure I've done an adequate job reviewing the book. It's hard to talk about--I want everyone to come to it as clean a slate as I did because it will amaze you. Rush out, buy it now, read it. Please.

My rating: 5/5
The Hundred-Year House on Goodreads
See what I've been reading lately!

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