Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Heritage home: Novel traces house's history back through generations

  • Print

The Hundred-Year House, Rebecca Makkai's latest novel and the followup to 2011's critically acclaimed The Borrower, presents a perfectly lovely problem to the weary, book-worn reviewer: finding something -- anything -- to critique.

It's a wonderful novel, as beautifully written as it is painstakingly plotted, with the structure to please any literary critic, and a story absorbing enough to satisfy the most ravenous reader.

While House boasts an impressive list of protagonists spanning a century, the novel is really about the house itself: Laurelfield, to be precise, built just outside Chicago "in the English country style" and named "like pets" by the Devohr family of Toronto.

The novel begins in 1999, but subsequent sections take the reader progressively back in time -- to 1955, then 1929, then 1900 -- so that the narrative begins with a mystery and unfolds the answers in stages as the reader steps deeper into the past.

While you don't need to have read them to appreciate House, a long list of great house novels is referenced in this one. Makkai nods to Jane Eyre's woman in the attic, to Rebecca and Wuthering Heights, and the whole tradition of British manor-house mysteries, complete with upstairs-downstairs politics, fills in the background. You know immediately where you are when you begin reading House -- but you can't assume you know where you'll go. Part of the beauty of this novel is in its transformative power: over time the house takes on new aspects, and its inhabitants undergo profound shifts.

Laurelfield's story technically begins in 1900 with the suicide of the beautiful first lady of Laurelfield, Violet Devohr; but the novel starts in 1999 with Violet's great-granddaughter Zilla moving into the coach house on the estate. Zilla's husband, Doug, is researching the poet Edwin Parfitt, who had visited the estate during its tenure as an artists' colony between 1920 and 1955, producing just a few brilliant poems before his own premature death. Exacerbated by secrets, tensions between Zilla and Doug -- and Zilla and her mother, Grace -- build to the breaking point.

The following three sections explore first Grace's experience, then Edwin's -- and finally, finally, that of the dark-eyed, haunted Violet Devohr.

Makkai's writing is effortlessly poetic. The house, she writes, "seemed as much alive on the inside as on the leafy outside -- the way the wood of the door frames contracted in winter and expanded in summer, the way the glass on these staircase windows was thicker at the bottom than at the top, from the slow, liquid pull of a century."

But the pace of House never slows to a slog -- Makkai keeps things moving, focusing on the details that illuminate character. Zilla, for example, is obsessed with her predecessors' known insanity, and her slow arc toward madness is all the more delicious for its inevitability, expressed through her ambition, her mania to control: "She was getting everything she wanted, but also -- like in a nightmare, where you're the author and also the victim -- she was getting everything she feared.... She thought, I need to be careful what I fear next. And then she thought: What I fear next is madness. What I fear next is madness."

But while The Hundred-Year House is deliciously entertaining, it has a few theses about history, about ghost stories, that have their own merit. Why don't we fear ghosts from the future? Why do we fetishize the past? "We aren't haunted by the dead, but by the impossible reach of history," writes Makkai. "By how unknowable these others are to us, how unfathomable we'd be to them."

Rare indeed is the novel that combines beautiful prose with ideas as robust as those on display in The Hundred-Year House -- not to mention a story like a set of Penrose stairs, connected in the most playful, the most surprising of ways.


Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg-based writer and editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 19, 2014 G6

History

Updated on Saturday, July 19, 2014 at 7:11 AM CDT: Formatting.

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Exciting changes expected for Saturday's Santa Claus parade

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A baby Red Panda in her area at the Zoo. International Red Panda Day is Saturday September 15th and the Assiniboine Park Zoo will be celebrating in a big way! The Zoo is home to three red pandas - Rufus, Rouge and their cub who was born on June 30 of this year. The female cub has yet to be named and the Assiniboine Park Zoo is asking the community to help. September 14, 2012  BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
  • Marc Gallant/Winnipeg Free Press. Local- Peregrine Falcon Recovery Project. Baby peregrine falcons. 21 days old. Three baby falcons. Born on ledge on roof of Radisson hotel on Portage Avenue. Project Coordinator Tracy Maconachie said that these are third generation falcons to call the hotel home. Maconachie banded the legs of the birds for future identification as seen on this adult bird swooping just metres above. June 16, 2004.

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Would you visit Dalnavert Museum if it reopened?

View Results

Ads by Google