09 July 2014
The Hundred-Year House
Meet the Devohrs: Zee, a Marxist literary scholar who detests her parents’ wealth but nevertheless finds herself living in their carriage house; Gracie, her mother, who claims she can tell your lot in life by looking at your teeth; and Bruce, her step-father, stockpiling supplies for the Y2K apocalypse and perpetually late for his tee time. Then there’s Violet Devohr, Zee’s great-grandmother, who they say took her own life somewhere in the vast house, and whose massive oil portrait still hangs in the dining room.
Violet’s portrait was known to terrify the artists who resided at the house from the 1920s to the 1950s, when it served as the Laurelfield Arts Colony—and this is exactly the period Zee’s husband, Doug, is interested in. An out-of-work academic whose only hope of a future position is securing a book deal, Doug is stalled on his biography of the poet Edwin Parfitt, once in residence at the colony. All he needs to get the book back on track—besides some motivation and self-esteem—is access to the colony records, rotting away in the attic for decades. But when Doug begins to poke around where he shouldn’t, he finds Gracie guards the files with a strange ferocity, raising questions about what she might be hiding. The secrets of the hundred-year house would turn everything Doug and Zee think they know about her family on its head—that is, if they were to ever uncover them.
In this brilliantly conceived, ambitious, and deeply rewarding novel, Rebecca Makkai unfolds a generational saga in reverse, leading the reader back in time on a literary scavenger hunt as we seek to uncover the truth about these strange people and this mysterious house. With intelligence and humor, a daring narrative approach, and a lovingly satirical voice, Rebecca Makkai has crafted an unforgettable novel about family, fate and the incredible surprises life can offer.
Old houses seem to have a life of their own. Laurelfield, the crumbling Chicago estate of an estranged offshoot of the Canadian Devohr family is no different. The Devohrs seem to be a cursed line, plagued with suicides and mysterious deaths. The last of the Devohrs are Gracie and her daughter Zee, born Zilla. Zee has returned home (reluctantly) to teach at the local college. She and her husband Doug live in the Laurelfield carriage house, soon shared by another couple Case and Miriam, Zee's step-brother and his wife. Things seem fairly orderly: Zee will teach (and try to get Doug hired at the college) and Doug will finish his monograph of Edwin Parfitt.
Then things start to go weirdly wrong. Zee is obsessed with forcing out her elderly colleague, then imagines Doug and Miriam are having an affair. An old dress re-appears in a wrong place. Doug writes and writes but not on his monograph - he is ghost-writing Baby-sitters' Club-type books. Case suffers a series of accidents. Gracie becomes fanatical about guarding the arts colony files from Doug. Bruce begins hoarding supplies to survive the Y2K meltdown. Is the house causing all these things to happen? The ghost of Violet Devohr?
As the wheels begin to come off normality we find that the characters wear their identities like cloaks, one under the other, much like the history of the house reveals that it has been a home, a prison, and a haven of creativity. Lies are created and lies are uncovered. Relationships are made and broken. At the end of each section we step through a doorway in time as the house sheds another layer to let us out into another one of its secrets. It's a bit like a counter-part to Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. How much crazy is lent by the environment and how much is lent by the inhabitants?
Makkai's progression through Laurelfield's history is very interesting. A reverse first-half of Cloud Atlas, if you will. I only have one very minor bone to pick and that has to do with a very short (perhaps 10 pages) section where Makkai does a very neat wrap-up of all the previous characters' lives. It's redundant, in my opinion, because readers who pay attention have already pegged what happened, it pulls you out of the established narrative of the book just before you get the very last bit of information that you need.
The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai is available from Viking Adult on July 10.
Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book via the Penguin First to Read program.