The Hundred Year House is author Rebecca Makkai’s second novel. It follows the success of her quirky book-loving The Borrower, which was published in 2011. The Hundred Year House is marketed as ‘a dazzlingly original and deeply rewarding generational saga in reverse’. Thus, the novel begins in 1999, and is consequently split into four parts – 1999, 1955, 1929 and 1900. Interestingly, the unusual structure of the novel has allowed Makkai to end her work with a prologue.
The Hundred Year House focuses upon the eccentric Devohr family, who, in the novel’s opening, are living on the family’s land somewhere near Lake Michigan. The family’s mother, Gracie, claims that she can tell one’s lot in life solely by examining their teeth, and her husband Bruce, is busy obtaining supplies for the impending Millennium apocalypse. Gracie’s daughter, Zee, is: ‘a Marxist literary scholar – this was how she actually introduced herself at wine and cheese receptions, leaving Doug to explain to the confused physics professor or music department secretary that this was more a theoretical distinction than a political one’. Her husband Doug, fancying himself as a serious biographer, has been tasked – rather embarrassingly – with ghostwriting a series of young adult books when finding that he is short on work.
As well as these living characters, we as readers are also introduced to Zee’s great-grandmother, Violet, a ghost whose presence is rooted firmly within the walls. It is said that Violet killed herself in the house at the turn of the century, but nobody seems to know quite how, or why: ‘For a ghost story, the tale of Violet Saville Devohr was vague and underwhelming. She had lived, she was unhappy, and she died by her own hand somewhere in that vast house. If the house hadn’t been a mansion, if the death hadn’t been a suicide, if Violet Devohr’s dark, refined beauty hadn’t smoldered down from that massive oil portrait, it wouldn’t have been a ghost story at all’.
The focus of Doug’s biography is tragic poet Edwin Parfitt, who lived in the Devohr’s family home when it was Laurelfield Arts Colony. Rather than allow him access to the archives of this period in the house’s history, Gracie ‘guards the files with a strange ferocity’, as though she is unwilling to give up any of the house’s secrets. In order to fully introduce all of the protagonists, the novel takes each of them in turn as the focal point for consecutive chapters. As the periods change, we learn more about the mysteries surrounding the house, and subsequently the Devohr family.
Whilst The Hundred Year House is well written – the prose can be witty and quite dry in its humour and asides, as well as exquisitely rendered – there are some flaws within the novel. Whilst the scene is set well at first, not enough use has been made of either the social or historical settings as the story reaches its earlier periods, and nothing seems to be tethered quite as well as it should be to make Makkai’s a believable journey through the history of a grand house. At first, her characters and situations feel realistic, but this element too is lost as we are taken back in time. Whilst the first section serves to engage and intrigue, subsequent parts of the novel do not; they feel, on the whole, flat, repetitive, and nowhere near as well written. Whilst The Hundred Year House is an incredibly interesting novel in terms of the backward approach to its structure, it appears rather inconsistent and is even a little disappointing.