NICOLE KRAUSS' GREAT HOUSE is a National Book award nominee (albeit in a season where no one seems to have heard of any of them—Lord of Misrule, anyone?) but the selling point for prospective readers will more likely be her much-loved previous novel, The History of Love. I'll just admit here that I haven't read History, though I did give the first chapter a try for comparison's sake, and was struck by how much more immediately engaging it was. In Great House Krauss keeps her reader at arm's length; her characters are difficult to access, difficult to understand, and in fact it's difficult to engage with the book at all until its structure begins to emerge—which, as it's a series of loosely connected vignettes, takes some time.
Great House is a decade-spanning saga that charts the passage of a huge desk from character to character. The desk changes hands many times, passing from a British writer to a Chilean poet to a New Yorker to an Israeli woman; secrets and hopes and regrets are poured into its drawers, as characters allow themselves to believe it is more than just an object.
Krauss writes from the perspective of several characters, but only one really emerges from her standoffish prose. The best segments of the book are told in the voice of an Israeli father, obsessing over his terrible relationship with his adult son. Perhaps because the focus of these scenes is on family, rather than a metaphorical desk, they have an immediacy and power that the rest of the book lacks.