W. W. Norton, $24.95, 289 pp.
“Turn Jerusalem into an idea. Turn the Temple into a book, a book as vast and holy and intricate as the city itself. Bend a people around the shape of what they lost, and let everything mirror its absent form.” Thus a contemporary antiques dealer named Weisz, a crucial but shadowy figure in Nicole Krauss’s new novel Great House, explains the first-century rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s radical response to the burning of Jerusalem. Weisz is familiar with the concept of radical reinvention after devastating destruction: he helps the relatives of Holocaust survivors reconstruct the pasts of their murdered loved ones by tracking down their stolen furniture. For many years, he has been searching for the massive and imposing desk of his own father, who was lost “on a death march to the Reich.”
That desk becomes the central motif in a novel suffused with mystery and shrouded in sorrow. In the opening pages, the reader meets one of the desk’s former owners, a solitary New York writer. She is addressing a judge with a disturbing confession of her sins, but the reader doesn’t know who the judge is, or why the writer stands before him. Neither is it clear why the writer refers to blood on her hands. The woman tells her audience––judge and reader––that she once had lovers and a husband, but now burrows into herself and her work. That work, writing fiction, means immersing herself in an unreality based on reality and confiscating stories for her own purposes; like...