A desk is stolen during the Holocaust, and years later the rightful owners commence a search.
Disappointment accompanies reading Nicole Krauss' new novel, "Great House," a tale of a desk stolen from Hungarian Jews by the Nazis during World War II, and for which the rightful owners later search.
That's regrettable, because as fans of her previous novels, "The History of Love" and "Man Walks Into a Room," know, Krauss can be a superb stylist. When she establishes the furious loneliness of her characters -- often Holocaust survivors -- she creates her most moving passages. ("I try to make a point of being seen," says the protagonist of her second book, an aged man living alone, whose consolations include dropping his change on the floor in stores, so others will have to notice him.)
But her new tale, about a piece of furniture that circles the globe and barely connects her young, latter-day protagonists, gets tedious. Its depressed characters drift along at length: among them, a muted New York novelist named Nadia and a pair of dull, yet psychologically enmeshed Israeli siblings, Yoav and Leah.
In contrast with their emotional flatness, the desk that passes through their hands is -- both in size and intended moral heft -- Herculean. Yet something in the book breaks down, as its starring role goes to repeat descriptions of a table with drawers, and the greatest breath in the novel wheezes in from the past.
Unfortunately, the desk is no Proustian madeleine, awakening passion. Although Krauss' characters exist in the present, they are -- compared with the old desk -- little more than dried-up artifacts.
It's not that the author, a highly intelligent writer, didn't choose her conceit. It's that here, as with the post-Holocaust novel "Everything Is Illuminated" by Jonathan Safran Foer (who is married to Krauss), the dead possess more vitality than the living.
In some novels, this can work. In others, it can be hard to spark reader interest in youthful characters gripped by an anhedonia that -- much like a used household item -- they've acquired second- or third-hand.
Still, if the book's overarching concept is flawed, there are sections that make it worth reading. The opening chapter, which first appeared as a short fiction in Harper's Magazine and establishes Nadia as a principal voice, stands out as the most successful.
In it, her numbed affect sets the tone for the submerged nature of the watery figures that follow, walkers of the Earth who seem to have opted instead for drowning.
Susan Comninos is a writer in New York and winner of the 2010 Yehuda Halevi Poetry Competition run by Tablet magazine. Her fiction recently debuted in Quarterly West.