Themes of history, love and identity drift through ‘The Hundred-Year House’

07/11/2014 7:00 AM

07/12/2014 7:49 PM

“How come ghosts are always from the past?” wonders a college student in Rebecca Makkai’s “The Hundred-Year House.” “I mean, why are they never from the future?”

Ghosts, or the impressions left by other people on a life, is a subject both mused about and embedded into the fabric of Makkai’s second novel.

A puzzle-box of a story that moves backward in time, the novel peers in on three linked moments set at a turn-of-the-century estate north of Chicago.

In 1999, married couple Zee and Doug live in the coach house on the grounds of Zee’s parents’ mansion. Zee teaches English at the local college while Doug stays home to write. He’s supposed to be working on a scholarly book about an obscure 20th-century poet.

The estate, Laurelfield, was previously home to an arts colony where Edwin Parfitt, Doug’s poet-subject, stayed. But despite his auspicious surroundings, Doug finds himself blocked, and instead he gets a job ghostwriting for a series of by-the-numbers books beloved by middle-school girls.

As in all good comedies, things pick up steam when the characters start working at cross purposes. Zee sabotages a colleague in hopes of freeing a position for Doug. Meanwhile, Doug teams up with Zee’s stepsister-in-law, an artist who shares their coach house, in a hunt for traces from the old colony.

As the plot zips along to the eve of Y2K, Doug’s sleuthing takes an unexpected turn when he stumbles on a much bigger and stranger secret than lost manuscripts and colony applications.

To say more would be to spoil the fun of discovery. When Doug and Zee’s story comes to a close, the novel jumps back 45 years, to the point when Zee’s parents reverted the colony to a family home.

Questions are answered, and more secrets are hinted at, before the story jumps yet again, to 1929, when the colony was in full swing.

With the backward structure, Makkai invites the reader, more than any character, to play detective.

Flipping back to earlier sections to spot callbacks and clues hidden in plain sight is one of the book’s distinct pleasures.

Makkai, a mainstay of contemporary literary fiction, relies on the common settings of the university English department and the golden-age artistic gathering, but her wry touch saves the story from feeling tired. Though some elements may seem a bit inside-baseball, her knowing humor keeps the situations from becoming pompous and self-important.

Makkai’s language is smart but down-to-earth. A character is described as “the guy who beats up John Cusack (in a movie).” Her conversational tone goes a long way toward broadening the novel past its insular, arty setting.

It’s easy to get caught up in the concerns of Makkai’s bookish characters because of her warm, likable characterization. There are few real villains, and we see almost every character from multiple angles, which adds to the delicious, gossipy thrill.

Running through all the sections are themes of identity and history, love and its follies, the lives of artists and the up-and-down flow of the work. What starts and ends as a ghost story is, at its heart, a tale of trials and failures and of reinvention — both of the self and the worlds we create around us.

The Hundred-Year House, by Rebecca Makkai (352 pages; Viking: $26.95)

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