This is a place where people aren’t so much haunted by their pasts as they are unknowingly hurtled toward specific and inexorable destinations. And perhaps it feels like a haunting. But it’s a pull, not a push.
The Hundred-Year House is the fictional story of an artists’ colony called Laurelfield, just outside Chicago near Lake Michigan. In the afterward, Makkai writes that one theme is the need artists have for community. Other themes would be the masks that people wear, hiding themselves from even those closest to them, and the “haunting” that has nothing to do with ghosts but much to do with one’s own desires and choices. As soon as I finished this novel, I wanted to go back and read it again, it was just so good and so surprising.
The story is told in four parts, moving backward through time from 2000 to 1900, when the house/artists’ colony, Laurelfield, was built. In the first section, we meet Doug and Zee Herriot. Zee is a literature professor at a university in the Chicago area, and unemployed Doug is trying to turn his dissertation into a book. The couple are living on the grounds of Laurelfield, which is owned by Zee’s mother Grace Grant. Grace is a descendent of the Devohr family — b-list robber barons, Canadian in origin, known for their mental health issues and divorces. The original Devohrs of Laurelfield — Augustus and Violet, who built the house in 1900 — had a troubling relationship and wife Violet committed suicide in the attic by either starving herself to death or jumping out a window. Violet may or may not be haunting the mansion. Zee’s beloved father died when she was young, and Grace’s second husband Bruce has invited his own unemployed son Case and wife Miriam to live in the guest house with Doug and Zee. The tension is pretty thick and not just because the two couples have to share space. Doug is hiding his work from Zee and getting close to Miriam, Case has incredibly bad luck, and Zee “… wasn’t upsetting the universe, but balancing it…” by sabotaging a colleague to help Doug get a job. But that’s not all. Doug has discovered that the subject of his dissertation, Edwin Parfitt, a minor 20th century poet who committed suicide at a young age, had been an artist-in-residence at Laurelfield; he is certain that Grace is hiding valuable archival information in the attic of the mansion and is determined to get his hands on it. And Bruce is hoarding canned food and batteries in preparation for Y2K and the end of civilization. The New Year’s celebration ends up having some devastating results for the whole family, fulfilling Zee’s premonition that, “She was getting everything she wanted, but also — like in a nightmare, where you’re the author and also the victim — she was getting everything she feared.” Questions left unanswered in part one are gradually addressed in the next parts. Part two, set in 1955, takes place just after the artists’ colony has been disbanded and Laurelfield has reverted to the Devohr heir — Grace, daughter of Gamaliel (Gamby) Devohr and newlywed wife of violent, alcoholic George Grant. That troubling relationship is full of surprises and more questions that will be answered in part three, which focuses on the artists’ colony in 1929 and the eclectic group of artists, writers and dancers in residence who must convince Gamby Devohr not to shut them down. The final chapter, “Ghosts,” sheds light on the relationship of Violet and Augustus and the reason for building Laurelfield to begin with.
The Hundred-Year House is a mystery and the unraveling is incredibly well told. Makkai has created a diverse cast of characters, with rich backstories and compelling and surprising reasons for the decisions they make. The ghost of Violet Devohr hovers in the background, but as Zee realizes, “We aren’t haunted by the dead, but by the impossible reach of history. By how unknowable these others are to us, how unfathomable we’d be to them.” Indeed, how unfathomable these characters are to each other as well! In the words of one character, plain sight is the best place to hide.