The Hundred-Year House,
by Rebecca Makkai
Publisher: Viking (Penguin Books)
352 pages, Kindle Edition
Expected Publication: 10th July 2014
Somewhere in the first part of Makkai’s impressive The Hundred-Year House there is a line or two referencing classic ghost stories of history that were not really about anything supernatural, but were rather psychological, about the descent of a character’s mind and the loss of their grip on reality or self. And in this first part, set in the late 1990s, it seems as if Makkai is doing something similar here with her characters.
The protagonist of this first part is Doug, a failing academic who (seeking to find a university position) should be working on a paper about a relatively unknown poet, but instead has become involved in writing formulaic children’s books. To aid his chosen (or forced) research and get back on track, Doug takes advantage of his connections through marriage. Zee, his wife and an established professor, who is heir to an estate which once served as an artist’s colony where the poet had stayed. Zee and Doug go to stay in the old house on the grounds, where they are joined by Zee’s mother, step-father, and her step-brother and his wife.
While Doug finds writing about the poet difficult, he becomes increasingly pulled into the mystery of what occurred at the artist’s colony in the past and why Zee’s mother-in-law seems so averse to letting him access any records or memorabilia from the time stored in the attic under lock. As Zee sets in motion a devious plan to create an open position for Doug at her university, Doug enters deeper into guarding his secret investigations into the house’s past and his clandestine children’s book writing from Zee. And unexpectedly, he finds himself drawing closer to his sister-in-law.
This first section is thus filled with secrets and intrigue, deep mysteries, catastrophic assumptions, and lies. Set against the backdrop of an old house where odd things occur and rumors of ghosts abound, all seems poised for the novel to continue down a course where Doug, Zee, and the others fall apart (individually in the psychological sense; and quite literally in their union as family). But rather than continue down this path and allow the characters to fully uncover one another’s secrets and the complete history of the house and estate, Makkai leaves these people and takes the reader back into the past with a step to the mid 1950’s, and in the parts that follow additional steps back, ultimately to the very foundations of the house.
For The Hundred-Year House isn’t just a ghost story with emphasis on the people, it is a story about place, as the title betrays. The novel later contains a comment by a character that living in this house in the presence of ghosts doesn’t feel to them as they would expect or understand. We normally view ‘haunting’ as the past coming to intrude and influence our present, to the point that the phrase “haunted by the past” appears redundant. In this house, the character explains, it is more as if its future is reaching back to form the history. And this is indeed the precise experience the reader is having, most obviously from this backward stepping through time as we learn some of the truth of events or unexpected relations between people we met through stories earlier in the novel, in the future.
This makes it necessary, and rewarding, to pay careful attention while reading Makkai’s novel. It is beautifully crafted, a complex weave of characters that makes the tapestry of this house, this estate, which becomes almost a life in itself for the reader and for those people in the story who feel manipulated by what is to come. Quite ingeniously this playing with time and cause-and-effect is more literally born-out in the sub-plot of the first section when Zee manipulates and creates a false story to try and destroy the reputation of a professor. Though based on lies, the charges end up becoming accepted true by all (even the falsely accused) as if history were rewritten by the future (paralleling the rewriting Zee does of the other professor’s Internet browsing history).
The Hundred-Year House is quite good, and rich. It is a novel that invites rereading to capture all the details – I can only guess the many things I missed through the nature of its construction and my spotty memory. Although I read it on a Kindle due to the format of NetGalley advanced reading copies, I’d recommend buying or checking out a physical copy of this, it is the type of work where you’ll appreciate the physical text and scents of reading in front of you, permitting you to flip back and forth between sections and time periods when those ‘aha’ moments hit. This is a haunting book, in no way supernatural, but surely powerful.
Five Stars out of Five