An imposing wooden desk with nineteen drawers floats through this book like a buoy, and sometimes with shackles, loosely uniting four disparate but interconnected narrative threads. The desk is largely a monument to Jewish survival, loss, and recovery, and mirrors the dissolution, pain, and dire hope of each character. Additionally, it is a covetous object, given a poignant and existential significance by the chorus of voices that are bound to it by their memories.
"Bend a people around the shape of what they lost, and let everything mirror its absent form."
This elegiac story opens with Nadia, a now divorced and successful writer, who received the desk in 1972 from a Chilean poet, Daniel Varsky. Daniel needed a place to store furniture, and Nadia had an empty house. After a long night that resulted only in a brief kiss, he leaves her his desk, as well as other pieces of furniture, and returns to Chile and the tragic conditions of Pinochet's Junta regime. He never returns. Years later, during a particularly low period of her life, she receives a call from a woman, Leah Weisz, who alleges to be Varsky's daughter, and who has called to claim the desk. In the midst of this narrative, we occasionally break to Nadia confessing to an unknown "Your Honor." Nadia's attachment to the desk is profound and the loss of it signals keen despair.
Leah and her brother have lived a nomadic (yet insular) privileged life with their father, George, a mordant, esteemed antiques dealer who is legendary for his prowess in recovering any loss object. He is obsessed with scrupulously reconstructing his father's study, to make it the way it was before the Gestapo pillaged it during World War II. Odd as this may seem, this reassembling in relation to Jewish culture and history is sublime.
There is another Jewish family, a father with two sons, Dov and Uri, whose link to the desk is more obscure and is revealed in the latter part of the book. He plaintively details the loss of his wife, Eve, and confesses to the tenuous relationship with his sons. Its climactic section is the weakest and most strained of all. I suspect that Krauss used it as a more concrete connective device.
We also meet a grieving widower, Arthur, whose wife, Lotte, once in possession of the desk, died of Alzheimer's and left an elusive trail to a dark secret. Arthur warily and then desperately decides to investigate her past. The strands of Arthur's narrative lead to connections with other voices and a searing self-examination. Certainties are founded on shifting sand; a commanding desk holds many compartments.
The central denouement (there is more than one climactic scene) is the most moving and mystical of all the segments of the book, and for this reader, poetic and riveting. Its link to ancient Jewish culture is beautifully rendered and breathtaking. It makes sense of the entire book, as well as the title. I am tremendously indebted to Nicole Krauss for hypnotically transporting me to this summit of Judaic history.
Krauss is a cultivated and gifted prose writer; she edifies the reader with striking imagery while digging down to the boots of a person's soul. At times, she is long-winded, which nearly thwarts the pace of the story. And the peppering of Nadia's proclamations to "Your Honor" was a stylistic choice that didn't always work for me and felt self-conscious.
This non-linear and (architecturally) unorthodox story covers approximately sixty years, and is theme-driven; plot is secondary. The engagement is often cerebral, but also powerful and emotionally acute as the threads unravel. Additionally, what contents can lay for years in a locked compartment? What does a key open us to? There is much gravitas and many memories to unlock.
Some characters seem oblique, impinged upon by the relentless peal of confession, or lack distinction from each other. They run together, like spilled ink, (but sympathetically so). It may be what Krauss intended, because the characters' words, (and sometimes their absence) fluidly conjure that metaphor. Moreover, Krauss' delicacy of insight and reflective wisdom, like a haunting obituary, overcomes most obstacles, even a towering desk, and comes to a transcendent conclusion.
Highly recommended for all literary collections.
This review was based on a complementary copy I received from the publisher.