The Hundred Year House (31 July 2014) by Rebecca Makkai
The 'hundred year house' is Laurelfield, a grand, English-style manor house built in Illinois for the Devohrs, a family of eccentric, upper-class Canadians. Makkai's second novel tells the story of the house through its various incarnations - a prison for an unhappy wife; an artists' colony; the setting for an ultimately tragic tale involving swapped identities; the backdrop for an affair that never was and a search for lost files that may not exist - but it tells it backwards.
In the first (and longest) part, it's 1999, and Laurelfield is inhabited by Grace, a descendant of the Devohrs, and her second husband, Bruce. Grace's daughter Zee, a scholar of Marxist literature, lives with her husband Doug in the coach house, where they are soon joined by Case, Bruce's terminally unlucky son, and his flaky artist wife Miriam. Doug is ostensibly working on a PhD studying an almost-forgotten poet named Edwin Parfitt; in actual fact, he is close to giving up on his academic ambitions and spends his days ghostwriting trashy kids' books about plucky teenage girls. Doug has known for some time that Parfitt stayed at Laurelfield when it was an artist's colony, but when he discovers that Grace may have some old files under lock and key in the attic, his curiosity is sparked and he becomes convinced that finding them is the key to finishing his thesis.
Part one takes up half the book, and it's inevitable, therefore, that this section involves the most detail and development, and produces the most emotional investment in the characters. What happens between them in the end is rather upsetting... At least, it was for me - I loved one character in particular and despised another, and was disappointed with how things worked out for them, though others may have different reactions.
I must say, though, that although I really disliked what happened here (I might have given this book five stars if the outcome of this section had been different) the characters must have been very well-written if they made me care so much. And, this book being what it is, there is a reason things play out as they do: the reader will discover later that the dynamic being played out here closely mirrors events that took place three quarters of a century earlier, and indeed (without giving too much away here), in some ways it brings them full circle.
In the second part, it's 1955. Grace is a young wife, married to Zee's violent, philandering father, George. She is bored, restless and feels cooped up at Laurelfield, and when she notices strange, small things she sees as omens, her life slowly begins to change, leading towards an inescapable fate. Because the reader has already discovered something of the nature of this fate in the 1999 story, what happens to her in the end is not a mystery... But how she gets there very much is. It's the uncovering of this chain of events that gives this section of the novel its tension and drama.
Third part: 1929, during Laurelfield's period as an artists' colony. There is a larger cast of characters here, a group of eight or nine artists of various types - including Doug's PhD subject Edwin Parfitt, and Zilla Silverman, the painter for whom Zee is named. The narrative here switches perspectives frequently (some of it is told in first person plural to describe the group's collective observations of an individual) and is told in short bursts. It follows the scheming efforts of the artists to 'save' the colony when it is threatened with closure by a particularly unpleasant Devohr.
There isn't a fourth part of the book, just a 'prologue', although it's placed at the end. Set in 1900, as the house is being built, it acts as a perfect coda to the earlier (or later) tales of Laurelfield.
This is not really a ghost story, and readers expecting something that's actually spooky will be disappointed, but it certainly references ghost stories in a number of ways. There's a couple of inexplicable, possibly supernatural incidents; various people joke, or half-joke, about Laurelfield being haunted; Zee teaches a class on ghost stories. Within the latter example there's a theory about a type of haunting that comes from the future rather than the past, and this informs the structure of the story: as the reader sees everything in reverse, it's impossible not to feel that the present is reaching back into the past somehow. That while the present, obviously, doesn't and can't affect what happens in the past, it does twist how the observer sees it. The full truth about everything that's happened at Laurelfield remains a mystery to the characters, and although the reader uncovers parts of it, it will never be fully revealed. This is the sort of book you could definitely read again - and again - and notice things you'd missed the first time.
The Hundred Year House reminded me a little bit of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections in its study of an unconventional family, sometimes unlikeable characters, and use of humour, but I preferred it to Franzen's book - I found it warmer and more believable. I hoped it would be good, but it actually surpassed my expectations, and I was surprised by how much I felt about this book and how much it seemed to come alive in my imagination. I'd love to re-read it at some point in the future, I definitely recommend it, and I've bumped The Borrower up a few places on my to-read list.
The Hundred Year House is a vivid, memorable and rewarding read whether you usually love or hate ghost stories, tales of grand old houses, or any and all of the above.
I received an advance review copy of The Hundred Year House from the publisher through NetGalley.
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