Nicole Krauss is something of a wunderkind. She started writing early (barely into her teens) like many of her fictionalised novelists. Joseph Brodsky admired her poetry, written as an undergraduate, and both JM Coetzee and Richard and Judy praised her second novel The History of Love (2005), which became an international bestseller. Despite their suffering and loss, the charm and warmth of Krauss's protagonists - Leopold Gursky and Alma Singer, an elderly refugee and a precocious teenager - meant that it had an extraordinarily broad appeal.
As with other young writers who achieve phenomenal early success in one style (Zadie Smith comes to mind), Krauss is at pains to distinguish Great House from its illustrious predecessor. While both books are structured around a free-floating literary object - a writer's desk rather than a lost manuscript - her third novel is completely different in mood and tone. Whimsy is replaced with melancholia and exuberance with introversion.
Great House is also more ambitious in scope than The History of Love. It straddles four cities – Oxford, London, New York and Jerusalem – with the intertwined stories split between past and present and its five narrators.
We first hear Nadia's voice, looking back at her life as a 24-year-old novelist, although now more than double the age of her younger self. The story of how she inherited the desk ("an enormous foreboding thing") from a Chilean poet, Daniel Varsky, reverberates throughout the novel. The year is 1972 and, although he intended to return to New York from Chile to reclaim his furniture, he is brutally murdered and becomes one of Pinochet's "disappeared".
Daniel's ghost haunts the novel just as Nadia's passionate but brief encounter with him haunts her life. When his supposed daughter reclaims the desk in 1999, Nadia goes to pieces. Such "black waters of unknowable depth" wash through the rest of the novel. Daniel reappears in the story of Lotte Berg, who arrived in England from Germany on a Kindertransport with 86 other children. She writes jagged and disturbing short fictions rather than Nadia's safer New York romans à clef. Lotte's life-story is told from the viewpoint of Arthur Bender, her long-suffering husband, who, with bitter irony, taught romantic poetry at Oxford. Both Lotte and Nadia are in thrall to their "instincts and vision", although only Nadia attempts to burst into life at the expense of her fiction.
Krauss is at her best when she reveals the intricate links between past trauma and the present lives of her characters. The Weisz family, easily the most accomplished figures in the book, are completely imprisoned by the past. George Weisz, the dominating father of Yoav and Leah, devotes his life to retrieving the furniture and art-work of those who escaped the Nazis. Unlike the victims of the camps, he argues, the objects of a childhood may still exist and act as a powerful, even redemptive, memory-trigger for those few who survived. Isabelle, an Oxford postgraduate, recounts the story of the Weisz family and, after becoming Yoav's lover, discovers the incestuous, if platonic, nature of his relationship with his sister.
All of Krauss's characters bend their "memories around a void" in order to bring back that which has disappeared. The novel's title is taken from the biblical injunction to build the "great house" from the memory of those who have been exiled.
But this means that much of Great House is written in the same exquisitely measured voice of those who are lost in the "dark, irretrievable depths". The low point is when a working-class woman, living in a Liverpool tenement, turns out to be more Krauss than scouse. Only Aaron, an alpha male full of rage, offers a sharp-edged counter-narrative to the novel's mournful melody.
At its most achieved, Great House is an evocative echo-chamber which eventually coheres in a stunning conclusion. Many of the novel's motifs - the children's cries which Nadia thinks she hears, the tortured figure of Daniel, and, above all, the "medieval" desk - resonate beautifully. But, despite its brilliance, the book has many false notes which can detract from its plangent qualities.
Bryan Cheyette is the Chair in Modern Literature at Reading University; his book 'Diasporas of the Mind' will appear later this year from YaleReuse content