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A century's secrets The Hundred-Year House'

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Tale of family mystery unfolds in reverse

Secrets have power. The manner in which they are revealed or not revealed has immense influence on the journeys of our lives. And the darkest secrets are often the ones most desperately hidden.

'The Hundred-Year House' (Viking; $26.95) is a story rife with secrets. Author Rebecca Makkai has fashioned a fascinating tale a tale told in reverse. It's a glimpse at one family's mysterious history, a chronicle that unfolds by way of leaping backwards across generations we see effects long before the causes are revealed.

The Devohrs are a family well-known in the circles of high society; they aren't at the top of the heap, but they exist comfortably within the still-immensely-wealthy tier just below the apex. They are also the longtime owners of Laurelfield, a noted house perhaps best known for serving as an arts colony for several decades during the first half of the 20th century.

The year is 1999. Zee is a Marxist scholar who has never come to terms with her family's wealth. However, circumstances have led to her and her struggling academic husband Greg living in the estate's carriage house under the watchful eye of her mother Gracie and stepfather Bruce she the epitome of a socialite, he loud and burnished and obsessed with Y2K.

But when Greg starts asking questions about a former resident of the colony the subject of an as-yet-unwritten book that will hopefully help his academic star rise once again he finds that whatever information still exists from that time is jealously guarded by Gracie. Laurelfield is a place of many secrets; the true fate of Violet Devohr, Zee's great-grandmother whose portrait still hangs in the dining room and whose death casts an ominous shadow, is perhaps the deepest, darkest secret of them all.

From there, 'The Hundred-Year House' ventures backward in time, telling the tale of Laurelfield and the Devohrs in 1955and then in 1929and then, finally, in 1900. The stories behind the stories, the flexibility of truth, the differences between what has happened and what we choose to believe has happened all explored as we move into the past.

One would think that telling a story from back to front would have a detrimental effect on the sense of suspense. Yet somehow, the opposite is true here. While the narrative is undeniably compelling in the book's early section (1999), the truth is that the tumblers of the lock only fall into place when information from the past is introduced. We're granted this understanding through real-time perspective rather than memory we get to see the events that lead to events that lead to events. The narrative thread is a line that is not a line.

The cohesiveness of that thread comes entirely through meticulous craftsmanship on the part of Makkai. The reader is swept up in her characterizations, immersed in lives that play out generationally in reverse. And the ultimate payoff is magnificent.

True, the threads can occasionally get tangled; a less-attentive reader could well get lost along the way. But there's nothing wrong with a book that demands deliberate contemplation, and besides, Makkai's prose is more than deserving of close reading.

'The Hundred-Year House' offers twists and mysteries honed to razor sharpness by layer after layer of stratified story and flawed characters whose imperfections make them human. It is absorbing and ambitious and captivating and clever. It is, in short, a tale well-told.

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