3.5 / 5
"Your Honor, in the winter of 1972 R and I broke up, or I should say he broke up with me."
A powerful, soaring novel about a stolen desk that contains the secrets, and becomes the obsession, of the lives it passes through. For twenty-five years, a solitary American novelist has been writing at the desk she inherited from a young poet who disappeared at the hands of Pinochet's secret police; one day a girl claiming to be his daughter arrives to take it away, sending her life reeling. Across the ocean in London, a man discovers a terrifying secret about his wife of almost fifty years. In Jerusalem, an antiques dealer is slowly reassembling his father's Budapest study, plundered by the Nazis in 1944.
These worlds are anchored by a desk of enormous dimension and many drawers that exerts a power over those who possess it or give it away. In the minds of those it has belonged to, the desk comes to stand for all that has disappeared in the chaos of the world-children, parents, whole peoples and civilizations. Nicole Krauss has written a hauntingly powerful novel about memory struggling to create a meaningful permanence in the face of inevitable loss.
When I was done with it, this book forced me to sit down and write out a summary of each section so that I could try to more fully comprehend what had just happened. I don’t even know where to start writing this review! It was a gorgeously-written but incredibly complex book, laden with nuances that the reader is never sure whether the author intended. Oy. Luckily, I read this one for my book club, so I was able to sit down with the group and realize that I was not the only one confounded and frustrated by the story!
It was funny, because the book would take me some time to pick up, but whenever I did, I found myself flying through, captivated by the beautiful writing. (The character's situation in the first chapter really resonated with me, which initially drew me in.) Overall, it felt like it took me a little while to read, but I did enjoy the process of doing so. However...the reader is left with so much mystery at the end! It was initially very frustrating, and I wanted to rate the book really low in spite of the prose.
It certainly helped to talk the book over with others, though, and to give it some time to sink in. I was glad to learn I wasn’t the only one who had felt confounded, almost swindled by the author! As if we were missing a huge chunk of something that would make the entire story fall into place. However, we came to realize over the course of an hour (and sometimes heated discussion!) it isn’t quite necessary that the book have that sort of closure. The book stood well enough by itself, and most of us agreed it was certainly worth reading.
We discussed also how the author had published versions of the first section as a standalone short story in a couple of publications prior to fleshing it out into a book, and we agreed that that first story really did stand pretty well on its own. We also learned that Krauss had admitted to often being tired & distracted while writing the novel, because she was pregnant at the time. This could also have explained some of the readers’ confusion - but we thought a good editor would have helped if that were truly the problem.
The book club discussed some excellent things: we talked about how every character seemed tortured and unable to move on; we commented on the similarities between the regimes of Hitler and Pinochet; we discussed the very Jewish sensibility of this book, and how ultimately all anyone wanted to do was tell their stories, and be remembered by them. One group member said “story as legacy,” which I think sums the book up nicely. The book touches on estranged parent/child relationships, loss (and the need to hold onto something), writing as catharsis, and the fragility of memory. It was complex and dense at times, and ultimately a very rewarding read (especially after our discussion). So my overall impression is that I think it gives the reader a lot to take away, and I ended up rating it quite a lot higher than I would have when I first closed the book. It makes me so grateful to be able to participate in such a thorough & multifaceted discussion group - and often be introduced to books I might not otherwise have ever encountered!
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