The Impossible Reach of History Is Made Possible in 'The Hundred Year House'

In one of the best books of 2014, Rebecca Makkai tells a story of time, ghosts, fate, unrequited love, requited love unconsummated, and art.

The Hundred Year House

Publisher: Viking
Length: 352 pages
Author: Rebecca Makkai
Price: $26.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-07

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.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.