The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai

Divided into four parts, this novel is the story of a vine-covered mansion called the hundred-year house. The story is told through four sets of interconnected people and its chronology is in reverse.

The first part, set during the year 2000, is fraught with comic desperation. Doug and Z agree to stay in her wealthy family’s coach house while he works on an academic treatise–a book he hopes will secure him a job in a university

Writing the book is torturous because Doug keeps getting distracted by the house’s history and by Miriam, whom Z’s mother has invited to stay with them.

Doug wants access to the Devohr’s attic where he hopes to find files on the artist colony. The hundred-year house was once populated by artists, including the poet that Doug is writing about, Eddie Parfitt.

More frustration ensues, however, when Doug finds that the file he sought is mostly empty, except for one photo.

Like many old houses, there is a ghost that haunts the hundred-year house. Violet, Z’s great grandmother is said to have committed suicide and left a restless spirit. The hundred-year house, however, holds much darker secrets.

The second part, set in the fifties, portrays the time when Grace, Z’s mother, moved into the House. Like her Grandmother, Grace spends most of her time alone in the attic.

From the attic’s perch, Grace becomes unusually interested in the lives of the servants, especially Max and Amy, a circumstance that will change their lives.

The last part focuses on the artists who were part of the artists’ colony in the twenties. One of them, Zilla, creates the painting that Grace desperately wants to save when she lives in the house in the fifties.

Eddie Parfitt, the poet Doug wants to write about, takes part in a scheme to save the colony. What exactly is his relationship to the Devohr family and why is there a photo of two unknown men in his file? Why is the word “Father” scrawled on the back?

The unrequited love of two darlings of the colony, Victor and Zilla, is tragic. Equally tragic is the doomed marriage of in the fourth part. The fourth part, which dips back to 1900, the year the house was built, focuses on Violet’s marriage.

The narrative’s chronology is backwards and unnerving, yet it leaves readers with a powerful image–Violet tapping on a train window. Much of the novel, this woman has been a ghost or a portrait on a wall. She is now asking readers for their full attention.

Like so many characters–Eddie, Grace, Zilla–Violet has locked herself behind a facade. The facade is tragic but, as the novel shows, necessary for survival. Even Proteus has to change forms.

If you like witty, complicated mysteries that has tragic elements thrown in, you will love this novel.

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