In this fascinating book Rebecca Makkai takes us backwards in time from the present to the past, unfolding layers of events at a house built in 1900 by Augustus Devohr for his wife Violet. The Devohrs are a wealthy Canadian family famous for their eccentricities. Violet suicides, but it’s unclear how, and becomes, supposedly, a ghost. The house is used as a refuge for artists from the 1920’s to 1954, when it becomes a family home again for Grace Devohr, married to the violent George Grant. In the present, Grace is elderly and is married to her second husband Bruce. Her daughter Zee is married to Doug, who is supposedly writing a monograph on poet Edwin Parfitt, who often stayed at the colony. Bruce’s son Case comes from Texas with his artist wife Miriam to stay in the carriage house with Zee and Doug, much to Zee’s discomfort. Zee gloomily predicts that Doug will fall for Miriam. Doug is keen for Grace to let him have access to the attic, where furniture and records of the colony are kept but she is very resistant to this idea. It transpires that maybe Grace isn’t exactly who she says she is. Moreover, the kindly father Zee knew growing up is not the cruel George we meet later. We think we discover who he really was but Makkai has another rabbit hole for us to go down as secrets come to light.
Each section is vividly imagined, especially the wild bohemian life of the colony in its heyday. The research into painting, sculpture, photography, film, dance and so on is lightly worn, serving only to make the lives of the characters more real. Links between the periods are cleverly established. For example, Miriam and Doug watch an old black and white movie and Miriam tells Doug that the German actress in it died after the film was wrapped from poisoned makeup. In the bohemian section this actress visits the colony and is enlisted in the campaign to persuade Gamaliel Devohr to let the colony survive. Eddie Parfitt is there too, having a homosexual affair. The whole novel is like looking into a kaleidoscope as patterns shift and themes are repeated. It’s masterfully done; easy to read in great, fascinated gulps.
Earlier this year, I discovered Rebecca Makkai through her debut novel, The Borrower: A Novel. That book became a favorite of mine for many reasons. With The Hundred-Year House, I knew I was in for another great reading experience, though I wasn't ready to encounter such a change from Makkai's first book. On top of that, this book is split up into a few sections. Each section has it's own style, characters, and time period to convey to the reader. This all, for me, shows how diverse a writer Makkai is and it's refreshing when many writers find one style and they stick to it (which isn't a bad thing, but changing it up is always welcomed when it can be accomplished so well.)
As I mentioned, this book is set up in a few "parts" (three parts and a short prologue). This isn't uncommon, though, the story takes place over 100 years and each new section brings the story back in time. The fact that this story is told by going back in time was interesting to me and I wasn't sure how it'd work for me. It took a bit for me to see what the author was doing with that format, and it was definitely the right choice. It was a unique way to reveal the big picture and the missing pieces in the puzzle.
There's a lot going on in the book that it'd be hard to pick it all apart here, and I'd rather leave it for the readers to discover on their own anyway. This book is filled with intriguing characters, many intersecting lives across generations, and some mystery that's only revealed through this journey back in time. And the characters aren't just the humans. The house, and the Laurelfield estate, itself has as much a role as a character as it does as a place for this story to take place. The bleeding together of Doug and Zee's struggles, into Grace's marriage issues, then the telling of a period when Laurelfield was an artist's colony before all of that, makes this story stand out to me as a complex but rewarding read that'll be one of few for me to go back and reread. With the knowledge I have after finishing, I'm eager to see what I pick up on from what came before it.
Makkai's books will be on the top of my reading list from now on. I can't wait to see what she writes next.