by Grant Cousineau
Where the ghosts of the future haunt the past.
Welcome to Laurelfield, a historic estate on the North Shore of Chicago adorned with great oaks, tranquil fish ponds, and a mansion the size of a museum. Built by the Devohr family in 1900, it was once an artists’ colony, alive with the energy of poets, sculptors, painters, and writers. Over the decades, much of their work has been locked in the attic, along with many of the house’s century-old secrets.
In Rebecca Makkai’s spellbinding second novel The Hundred Year House, it’s this mesmerizing setting that takes centerstage, shaping its inhabitants generation after generation.
We meet Laurelfield in 1999, just as Y2K is threatening the end of the world. People change their locks, stockpile salt, and cash in their midlife crises on ’57 Chevys. “Nuclear power plants, think about that,” says Bruce, husband to the latest owner of Laurelfield, Grace Devorh. “Best we can do is hunker down with the canned goods and barricade the doors.”
Grace’s daughter Zee lives in the coach house with her husband Doug, and as a professor at the university, she’s working to get Doug a teaching a teaching job there, too, even if it requires some underhandedness. Until then, Doug’s stuck at the coach house, laboring to write a monograph about the poet Edwin Parfitt who actually stayed at Laurelfield during the colony’s heyday. Yet, nary a trace of him remains.
While Laurelfield seems to stay the same year after year, everyone who comes through it undergoes some sort of transformation. Makkai brilliantly tells the story of each generation in reverse, from Y2K to 1900 when Augustus and Violet Devohr first purchase the land. From the beginning, you get a sense of the secrets hidden in every floorboard, as the only two things to survive those hundred years were the estate itself and the legacy of Violet Devohr:
She had lived, she was unhappy, and she died by her own hand somewhere in that vast house. If that 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.
After the stories of Y2K, we leap back to the 1950s, where a young Grace Devohr is exiled to Laurelfield by her family, forced to live with her drunk, abusive husband. After a few narrative twists, turns, and revelations, Makkai launches us back once again to the artists’ colony in 1929 where we finally meet the storied Edwin Parfitt, who believes Laurelfield is to blame for his poetry and mind – both irreversibly dark. And finally, we land softly at the beginning where decomposing leaves enrich the Laurelfield soil. Architect Adler Ross, surveying the land, immediately senses something’s off:
This plot feels auspicious, not like a place he’s seen before but a place he’s always been meant to see. What is the opposite of memory? What is the inverse of an echo?
While there are ghosts throughout The Hundred-Year House, it isn’t spirits that haunt the living. In one of Zee’s seminars, she tells her students, “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.” And in a place that so many people have called home, have come in search of love and purpose and kinship, where many have lived their most despairing days, Makkai’s tale of Laurelfield will leave you breathlessly surprised at every turn, and always – always – wanting more.
Rebecca Makkai is the author of breakout novel The Borrowers and The Great Believers, winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and selected as a finalist both for the National Book Award and the 2018 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction. Her short stories were selected for The Best American Short Stories four consecutive years, and she’ll be at the Brown County Central Library Sunday, April 28 at 2:00 p.m. You can also follow Makkai on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.