Nicole Krauss novels are events. Years in the making and complex enough to be read multiple times, her books each manage to walk a compelling line between carefully crafted work and hot mess. Her breakthrough second novel, The History of Love, which created a cultish fervor soon after its 2005 release, mixed numerous narratives and traveled to several continents over the course of 70 years. Great House, her National Book Award-nominated 2010 novel, followed a potentially powerful many-drawered desk through a similar swath of time.
Krauss’ latest, Forest Dark, is an equally expansive work that follows two protagonists—an aging lawyer and a younger novelist—who each travel to Israel to escape their lives in New York City, getting swept up in the spell of enigmatic older men proposing curious projects. Four novels in, Krauss’ preoccupations are obvious and on full display: the near-impossibility of long-term romantic love, the historical and political weight of Jewish identity, the way objects carry a sense of their past owners, and the existence of knowledge beyond human comprehension.
The last of these is where Forest Dark lingers. The book isn’t exactly magical, but its protagonists are considering how to make sense of the world and make room for mystery. “Doesn’t part of the awe that fills us when we confront the unknown come from understanding that, should it at last flood into us and become known, we would be altered?” Krauss writes.
Both characters see themselves confronting the unknown, shaking off concrete information and trusting a less solid, more intuitive sense of the world. “Sometimes, reading to my children at night, the perverse thought would come to me that in rehashing for them the same fairy tales, Bible stories, and myths that people have been telling for hundreds or thousands of years, I was not giving them a gift but rather taking something from them—robbing them of the infinite possibilities of how sense should be made of the world,” writes Krauss.
Krauss’ most popular work, The History of Love, is so adored because its gorgeous mess of narratives come together, its characters intersect, and it wraps up. But both Great House and Forest Dark sidestep easy resolution. “Chaos is the one truth that narrative must always betray,” Krauss writes, “for in the creation of its delicate structures that reveal many truths about life, the portion of truth that has to do with incoherence and disorder must be obscured.”
While Forest Dark by no means completely embraces chaos, it welcomes it more than most mainstream novels. But through the book’s layers of narrative technique—multiple juxtaposed plot lines, point-of-view shifts, books within books, real literary history mixed with imagined literary history (all approaches familiar to Krauss’ fans)—she never comes off as experimental. She remains accessible through all of the risks she takes, which might be her greatest feat.
Each Nicole Krauss novel expands the possibilities of what the novel is capable of, and her latest is no exception. An essayistic epic that asks more questions than it answers, Forest Dark is a whirlwind, pure and simple. It might not tie up every loose end, but its force is undeniable.
by Nicole Krauss