Released: August 2014
Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House is a striking tale that had me gripped in its thrall from the very first chapter, and I found myself hurtling through the pages of this utterly charming and cunningly devised story.
The tale begins in 1999. Zee, the great grand-daughter of the late and mysterious Violet Devohr is drawn back to the Devohr family mansion, ‘Laurelfield’, when her mother offers Zee and her husband Doug the coach house accommodation set within the mansion’s grounds. Zee is a Marxist literary scholar who loathes her parent’s wealth and her strong character is often at odds with that of her mother Grace. Grace is now on her second marriage to Bruce who is a wealthy eccentric – spending much of his time stockpiling supplies for the Y2K apocalypse. Dominating these unconventional characters whose daily lives intertwine is a substantial oil painting of Violet Devohr, which still hangs in the dining room and, for some of the family, casts a shadow, for it is said she took her own life somewhere within the vast mansion.
Zee’s husband Doug is an out-of-work academic whose only hope of a future position is securing a book deal. The subject of his stalled biography is the poet Edwin Parfitt who resided at the family mansion when, from the 1920’s to the 1950’s it served as the Laurelfield Arts Colony. He needs to get his book back on track and his research involves finding a way to access the colony records, which have been decaying in the attic for decades. For some strange reason they are being kept under lock and key and are closely guarded with the utmost secrecy by his mother-in-law Grace.
He becomes obsessed with discovering the hidden secrets of the colony and in particular anything that may bring him closer to information regarding Edwin Parfitt. The more he probes the more he is convinced that Grace has something to hide. He soon finds himself falling under the spell of Laurelfield and his life becomes driven by influences which are soon to be beyond his control. If secrets were unveiled, it might lead to revelations which could turn everything Doug and Zee think they know about their family upside-down.
As this beguiling tale develops, the characters that inhabit it reinvent themselves and throughout the story there are lavish twists and turns which surprised and delighted me. Chronicling the lives of the family members that harboured the various artists at the Laurelfield Arts Colony, as well as the intriguing lives of its varied artists, kept the plot fresh and well-paced.
Told in reverse, from the viewpoints of its varied characters and travelling right back to the inception of the mansion, I found myself connected to the characters in a refreshing way which was clearly by virtue of the author’s unique flair for telling a tale with suspense and perspicacity. Stepping back in time but never quite knowing what was around the corner made The Hundred-Year House a tale rich in suspense. This witty and poignant novel transports the reader back through time and roams the boundaries of family and destiny in an exceptionally rewarding generational epic.