Artists’ Colony in a Time Warp

The Hundred-Year House: A Novel, by Rebecca Makkai, (Viking Adult), 352 pages

The Hundred-Year House is a novel in reverse. Its four sections move back in time: from 1999 to 1955 to 1929, and finally ending in 1900. This makes reading it a bit of a game. Each step backwards offers new pieces of the puzzle to snap into place, assuming the reader is alert enough to catch them all.

The house of the title is Laurelfield, which began as a private home, became an artists’ retreat, then became a private home once more. Laurelfield may or may not have ghosts. The house has seen tragedy aplenty, but the rapping may be spirit communication or falling acorns.

My primary complaint about The Hundred-Year House is that as the novel progresses, the sections grow shorter and less filled-out. The 1999 characters are developed in detail, surprising readers as new aspects of their personalities are revealed. By time the novel reaches 1900 the characters are essentially stick figures: we’re told things about them, but aren’t given enough to feel as if we’re entering their inner world.

That said, The Hundred-Year House is an engaging read. When I reached the end of the 1999 section exactly halfway through the story, I was uncertain where the writer was headed; I felt as if I’d read a complete novel by the time I got there. Even though I found the later sections less well-developed, I enjoyed the backward journey Makkai took me on. There most certainly was more to say—and 1999 was truly more of a beginning than an ending.

Pick this book up when you’re looking for a mix of entertainment and riddle. It always offers enough of at least one of these (and often both) to keep the reading pleasurable.

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