Decades ago, we bought a yellow frame house on a narrow suburban lot. After living there about five years, we decided to remodel its antiquated and inefficient kitchen. On Day One, workmen invaded the space. They ripped out appliances, cabinetry, and flooring. They attacked the walls and removed layer after layer of painted-over wallpapers. They stopped when they reached the room’s original painted walls from the late 1890’s.
After the workmen left that day, we parted plastic sheets separating our dining room from the project to enter the stripped kitchen and inspect the naked space. We could not miss markings scrawled across the middle of one wall. In block letters resembling the work of my left, non-dominant hand was one sentence written in soft pencil: “Amy was here.”
Who was Amy and what was her connection to this space 60 or more years earlier? Maybe she was a young girl anxious to be re-discovered in the next century, or a housemaid? A mischievous brother hoping his prank would win Amy a parental scolding? Or did a sad woman want to leave her mark before new owners took possession of her beloved home? In the basement, we found an early telephone directory listing the first owner, a man in advertising. If only we’d found other artifacts, we might have had more answers, a sort of prologue to our occupation of the same premises.
As the kitchen designer’s crew worked over the next two weeks, I forgot about Amy, her words buried under fresh layers of Kilz primer and semi-gloss paint. New appliances and a hefty butcher block table encouraged creative cooking, not research into the house’s history. Less than a year later, attracted by the spaciousness and possibilities of an urban loft, we moved away.
I remembered our mysterious kitchen discovery when I read Rebecca Makkai’s novel, The Hundred-Year House, which unfolds through layers of time, paint, and characters. Structured in four parts retreating in time, the novel ends with a prologue supplying not an introduction—it is, after all, the last not first part of the book—but a validation of my hunches concerning the old house’s inhabitants and their relationships. Fantastic and gratifyingly surprising plot twists in each part carry the reader ever closer to the narrative’s moving and sympathetic “ah-ha” moment.
Makkai is a superb wordsmith, crafting unforgettable, sometimes baffling, but always compelling characters and vivid settings. For example, early in the story, the work of a minor poet appears as the thesis project of Doug, an academic wannabe and an important character in Part One. Like a leitmotif, the poet’s writing and persona reappear episodically, with puzzling, increasing frequency. Part Three supplies the crescendo in this clever orchestration of details.
The narrative appealed to me, especially because of its assumption that the arts persist as an essential, indeed necessary, expression of our human complexity. Through layers of inner monologues, misdirected or misinterpreted conversations, and the evolution of a mansion and its outbuildings through several generations, The Hundred-Year House transports the reader into a realm rich in conflict and creativity.