[19 August 2014]
By the time you get to the end of The Hundred Year House, you can play the events of the novel backwards in your head, as if you were rewinding a video of a glass breaking: here at the end, you see all the pieces scattered on the floor, and now you see them bestirred and lifted as if by an invisible wind, and now they come neatly, impossibly, but deeply satisfyingly, together.
And if you start the video from the beginning and watch it at half speed, you can see one complete story become pieces that fitted perfectly together only a moment ago. Among the fragments that compose Rebecca Makkai’s wonderful book are time, ghosts, fate, unrequited love, requited love unconsummated, and art.
But the first time you read the novel you won’t have the whole story, so you’ll have to start at the beginning, when Zee and her husband, Doug, move into the former carriage house on her mother’s estate in Illinois. It’s 1999. The estate, Laurelfield, was formerly an artists’ colony that housed various writers and artists, among them the deceased poet Edwin Parfitt, about whom Doug is writing a book.
Zee, a Marxist scholar, is somewhat embarrassed by her family’s wealth and stature. The Devohrs of Toronto “sat firmly in the second tier of the great families of the last century, not with the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts of the world but certainly shoulder-to-shoulder with the Astors…” Even her mother, Grace Devohr Breen, neé Devohr, never uses her maiden name, though she bequeaths it to her daughter as a middle name, a fact Zee conceals fervently. But Zee is not without class-consciousness, of a sort: her embarrassment at Doug’s lack of progress in his writing makes her increasingly anxious to push his career forward by any means possible.
Laurelfield, which will be 100 years old on New Year’s Day, is said to be haunted by the ghost of Zee’s great-grandmother, Violet Devohr, who killed herself somewhere in the house. Zee has always been fascinated by the haunting. While teaching a course on ghosts in British and American literature, she muses, “We aren’t haunted by the dead, but by the impossible reach of history. By how unknowable these others are to us, how unfathomable we’d be to them.”
We are more fortunate than Zee in this respect, because Makkai will show us the extent of this “impossible reach”. After the first half of the book, the narrative goes back in time, first to 1955, then to 1929, and finally to 1900, when the house was built. But Zee is only partly right about the nature of haunting: Makkai shows how unknowable we can be to each other in the here and now, when we may seem to be together, but are really only slowly passing each other in space and time.
Zee and Doug are only the first obvious example of this. Doug blames Grace for stalling his progress on his book, since she refuses to grant him access to Laurelfield’s attic, which he believes may hold crucial files on Edwin Parfitt. He schemes with fellow outsider Miriam (Zee’s stepbrother’s wife) to gain access to the attic and uncover the secrets of the estate’s past. Meanwhile, Zee tries to seize rigid control of her future. She underhandedly manipulates circumstances, even jeopardizing another professor’s career, to clear a path for Doug to succeed on her terms.
Doug and Zee are figuratively moving in temporally opposite directions. Throughout the novel, Makkai depicts this kind of missed connection again and again, whether it’s in the form of a verbal miscommunication, a misinterpretation of events, or a result of poor timing. Even the reader is subject to the misunderstandings caused by the gaps in a story 100 years old.
In describing the book’s considered structure and myriad moving parts, it would be easy to inadvertently make The Hundred Year House sound a bit intimidating. Never think it. The book is rich and complicated, yes, but also light and funny and in love with its characters, in their good and bad moments. If Doug is a poor husband, self-centered and un-self-aware at the same time, he is also charming in a way that shows us why Zee fell in love with him. And if Zee is controlling and even unethical, she is also unexpectedly principled in her own way, and we are compelled to empathize with her loneliness.
And this is only the first half of the book. When Zee and Doug’s stories are finished, Makkai takes us back and shows us how haunted the house really is, and by whom. At least the first time you read it, The Hundred Year House is a mystery novel in the purest sense, in that it’s not about what will happen, but what has happened, and why. When you read it the second time, mystery solved, the book becomes something else, but equally excellent.