Rebecca Makkai's new novel, The Hundred-Year House, is a mystery that takes an unusual form: the Chicago author begins with a happy ending, then progresses backward in time, simultaneously revealing the origins of various deceptions that got the narrative so tangled in the first place and laying down the clues that have already been uncovered in part one. It's one of those books that improves on a rereading, so you can see how all the pieces fall into place. (And there's no cheating: you won't learn anything by reading the last page first.)
The mystery itself concerns Laurelfield, a rambling old mansion in Lake Forest said to be haunted by the ghost of Violet Devohr, the unhappy wife of the Toronto millionaire who built it in 1900, and possibly also the creative spirits of the guests who stayed there during its 30 years as an artists' colony. In 1999, when the story begins, and ends, it's a private home again, inhabited by Gracie, granddaughter of the original owners, her second husband, Bruce, and, crammed into the coach house, Gracie's daughter, Zee, Bruce's son, Case, and their respective spouses, Doug and Miriam.
Zee and Doug are academics. She's a Marxist literary scholar who finds herself teaching a course on ghost stories at the local college. He's still working on his dissertation on Edwin Parfitt, a minor poet who, coincidentally, spent some time at Laurelfield in its colony days. The attic, which might contain some information on the mysterious Parfitt, maybe even some lost poems, is conveniently locked. Miriam—who is, Zee notes bitterly, younger, prettier, and nicer than she is—offers to help Doug with his investigation. Complications and high jinks ensue.
It would be unfair for two reasons to say any more about what happens in the rest of the book, except for the barest outline (part two, set in 1955, covers a pivotal time in Gracie's youth, while part three, in 1929, describes a so-crazy-it-just-might-work conspiracy by a group of visiting artists to save both the colony and the house itself). First, it would spoil a lot of the fun. Second, several of the plot twists are so preposterous, almost soap opera-worthy, they're only acceptable because of Makkai's assured storytelling.
A novel with a plot so tightly constructed runs the risk of becoming overly determined and airless, but Makkai gives her characters enough space to breathe and plan and act so that the story feels like a natural progression of events, told with a mixture of humor and foreboding. "As [Zee] sped to town she developed the leaden sensation, though, that she hadn't just been right in her fears, but had actually caused something, yet again, to happen. . . . She was getting everything she wanted, but also—like in a nightmare, where you're the author and also the victim—she was getting everything she feared."
None of the characters ever find out the full story of the haunting of Laurelfield House. But Makkai ensures that an alert reader will. In a novel filled with conspiracies, this one between writer and reader might be the most satisfying.