I don’t think I’ve read a book in which the prologue is at the back before and in case you’re thinking of correcting me – it isn’t an epilogue. Rebecca Makkai’s novel is a backward looking history of Laurelfield which we first enter as a family home, albeit a somewhat dysfunctional family. You may know Makkai’s name from her lovely, engaging first novel, The Borrower, the story of a librarian who goes on the run with her favourite customer, a ten-year-old boy whose Evangelical mother is worried about his sexuality. Her second is entirely different, but just as entertaining.
The Hundred-year House opens in 1999 with Zee and Doug renovating the gatehouse of the estate owned by her mother Grace. Neither of them particularly wants to live with her parents but finances are precarious and for Doug there’s the added lure of the Laurelfield artists’ colony where Edwin Parfitt, the subject of his thesis, once lived. When Bruce’s son loses his job, he and his wife Miriam become unwelcome guests at the gatehouse. Zee is convinced that Doug will fall in love with Miriam but he’s busy writing pre-teen fiction when he should be working on his Parfitt monograph. Meanwhile, Bruce is ordering supplies for his Y2K apocalypse obsession (remember that?) and his son seems to be succumbing to the fabled supernatural powers of the house, watched over by the portrait of Zee’s ancestor the beautiful Violet who supposedly haunts the place. Fast forward, or rather backward, to 1955 and Grace is a young woman married to George, a womanising drunkard with an eye for the servants. Grace finds a surprising ally in Max, their chauffeur and general factotum, who seems to know the house so well it’s as if he’s always lived there. Back we go again to 1929, when the eight artists who make up the colony are awaiting the owner’s son, convinced that he plans to shut it down. Together they hatch an ingenious plan and secure a twenty-five year tenure, breaking a few hearts along the way. Finally, we end up at the prologue and the very beginning of Laurelfield.
Each of the novel’s sections is very different. The first, and by far the longest, has an almost farcical tone at times with its cross-purpose misunderstandings and occasional slapstick humour but there’s a wonderfully unexpected twist, further unravelled in the next, much more sombre section which in turn sets up more questions to be answered in the third. Satisfyingly, the significance of small, seemingly trivial details – a small jade statue, the mystery of a photograph, Zee’s name – become a little clearer each time history is wound back. It’s a very clever structure – hard work to keep it all straight while writing it, I imagine, but it works. The ghost motif running through all three sections was a little strained for me but even that has its point as the story coalesces. It’s one of those novels that the more you think about it the more accomplished it seems.