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.