This book was fascinating, though at times a bit hard to follow, largely because the story is told in reverse chronological order (reminiscent of Geraldine Brooks' People of the Book). This novel starts in 1999 when Doug, an unemployed writer supposedly working on turning his doctoral dissertation into a publishable work, moves with his wife Zee into the coach house on Zee's mother's property. Years ago the main house was a colony for visiting artists, including Edwin Parfitt, the poet whose life Doug is chronicling. Zee is a Marxist poet teaching at a local college (outside Chicago) and plotting the demise of an elderly colleague hoping to create a vacancy for Doug.
All kinds of strange characters emerge - Zee's mother Grace and her eccentric second husband Doug who is obsessed with preparing for the end of the world on Y2K; Doug's unemployed son and his crazy wife who are invited to share the coach house with Zee and Doug; and the elderly colleague who Zee tries to frame but in a strange twist befriends. The house itself which is rumoured to be haunted by Zee's great grandmother, its original inhabitant, also becomes a character.
Doug is anxious to dig into the archives of the artist colony which he believes are housed in the attic of the main house. Grace stonewalls him so he schemes with a friend to sneak in while the members of the household are otherwise engaged. Through his scheming and drunken confessions by Grace, he discovers secrets about his mother-in-law that he can't share with his wife.
The next section of the novel jumps back in time to the 1950s when Grace is banished by her wealthy Canadian family to live in the house with her abusive husband as her punishment for marrying him. In this section we learn more about the secrets which Grace is trying so desperately to hide from Doug. We also get a glimpse of how Grace was somewhat supportive of the artist colony but was made the "bad guy" by her family in moving there and forcing it to shut down.
The third section of the book takes place in 1929 when the artist colony is still functioning but Grace's father wants it shut down. He visits with a very young Grace in tow and becomes the victim of a conspiracy to blackmail him into keeping the colony open - evidence of which Doug finds in the first portion of the book - and which now starts to make sense. We are also introduced to characters who play a role in the first and second parts of the book - given this history we gain a better understanding of their roles in later years.
The "prologue" of the book which is in fact the last section takes us back to Zee's haunting great grandmother and we discover why she may have felt so unsettled in the house as to haunt its attic forevermore.
I know this review sounds confusing, but I don't want to give too much away - there are still some puzzles in my own mind and if I find some time I may try reading the book again - perhaps even from back to front.