The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai

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The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: In a postmodern take on two classic genres, the country house novel and the ghost story, Makkai traces – backwards – the story of a Chicago-area house, once an artists' colony, throughout the twentieth century. A most unusual novel, but it works brilliantly.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: July 2014
Publisher: William Heinemann
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780434022977

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The first thing you'll notice about this novel is that, like a crazy house, it's upside-down. That is: it opens in 1999, that near-contemporary storyline taking up about half the text; follows it with sections set in 1955 and 1929; and finishes with a 'prologue' set in 1900. The second thing to jump out is that this is a ghost story – or is it? The first line is both declaration and qualification: 'For a ghost story, the tale of Violet Saville Devohr was vague and underwhelming.'

If you've read Makkai's first novel, The Borrower, you'll recognise how she plays with genres. In that book, a librarian kidnaps a young patron who is being brainwashed by his Evangelical parents. What follows is a bit like a road trip novel or a picaresque. In the same way, The Hundred-Year House slightly resembles a country house novel or a ghost story. Laurelfield, 30 miles north of Chicago, was built by the Toronto Devohrs, part of a second tier of North American aristocrats (somewhere below the Vanderbilts). It became an artists' colony in the 1920s-50s.

Now, in 1999, Laurelfield's residents include Gracie Devohr and her second husband, Bruce; Gracie's daughter, Zee (Zilla), a Marxist literature professor, and her husband, Doug; and Bruce's son, Case, and his wife, Miriam, who have moved up from Texas to share the coach house. Miriam and Doug both work from home: she creates her art ('detritus collages'), while Doug composes his monograph on Edwin Parfitt, an obscure poet who visited Laurelfield several times before his suicide. Stuck on his academic project; what Doug's actually writing to pay the rent – hoping Zee never finds out – is YA series fiction.

Miriam and Doug, intrigued by the house's history, stumble onto a peculiar mystery involving Gracie and Parfitt himself. With Y2K approaching, there is a kind of end-of-the-world urgency to their research. As the family's bad luck – or is it Violet's curse? – worsens, endings look like they might just lead to new beginnings. When the 1999 portion ends, you may feel you've read a complete novella, but the three subsequent parts help elucidate the family secrets hinted at in the first part.

The 1955 section has Grace and her first husband, George, an alcoholic womanizer, newly arrived at Laurelfield the year after the artists' colony closes. The tone of domestic discontentment echoes Richard Yates, while the aura of suspense – and the fact that Grace is a beautiful blonde – creates a definite Hitchcock feel. Likewise, the 1929 narrative has a distinctive atmosphere, as well as an experimental style: mixing past and present tense, third-person and first-person plural; and incorporating epistolary elements. The phrasing, short and somewhat choppy, is evocative: 'her hair a black puddle, her teeth a broken necklace' and 'The August air, thick enough to climb.' The colony is in full swing now, with Parfitt and Zilla, Zee's namesake, both residents. There's even a Marlene Dietrich character. It's all great fun until Gamaliel Devohr, Grace's father, threatens to close them down.

I was a touch disappointed with the 1900 prologue, which, at only five pages, doesn't represent the 'big reveal' I might have liked; I wondered if this segment was necessary. Certainly in the 1955 and 1929 sections, characters appear for the first time and we fill in background on suicides, accidental deaths and assumed identities. Yet this is not some cheap crime thriller; rest assured it is all highbrow. Class is of special interest here, with insider vs. outsider and old money vs. new money distinctions dredging up Zee's academic speciality of Marxism.

Keen readers will unearth tiny clues in each section. However, Makkai confounds our expectations for what will prove to be important: for instance, a compromising photograph carries less weight than a character's habit of chewing nickels or a terrible painting of a farmhouse. Although I read the book in print, I can see how it would be useful to have an ebook for searching for oddly resonant phrases like 'white rabbits' and 'root beer float.' Some things become clear at last, but Miriam is right to warn, 'You'll never know the whole story.'

Throughout, Laurelfield is, as the title suggests, the most enduring presence – almost like a living thing: 'The house turned brown every fall, it died every winter …[it] seemed as much alive on the inside as on the leafy outside…the door frames contracted in winter and expanded in summer'. It even seems to have agency, like a character: 'You think the house just really wanted to be a colony again? It missed all the artists', Doug theorizes. For, as the centennial arrives, the house has come full-circle: it will once again be a haven for artists.

Almost bafflingly inventive, this playful novel is one to revisit: this century-old house surely has many more secrets to reveal.

The Borrower is essential reading for any fan as is The Great Believers. Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer is the story of two writers who meet at an artists' colony, while A World Elsewhere by Wayne Johnston is partially set at a country house inspired by the Vanderbilts.

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