Nicole Krauss’ latest novel will let you approach, but do not expect it to invite you in. Forest Dark (Harper, 290 pp., ** ½ out of four stars) is brilliant, inventive and ambitious. It is also meandering, aloof and forbidding. Although it will reward you, you’ll have to work for it.

Krauss intersplices two narratives of Americans on journeys to Israel. The first is that of charismatic and wealthy Jules Epstein, who has shed his life in New York City to return to his birthplace. He checks himself into the Tel Aviv Hilton, where he encounters a series of large personalities who pull his story into surprising directions, including traveling into the desert to assist in a film about King David.

The novel’s other viewpoint character is staying at the same hotel, but from here the convergences end. A young writer named Nicole (!) has left her two children behind in Brooklyn to come to the Hilton where her family vacationed during her childhood.

The building has held mythical sway over her ever since: “When viewed from the south, the hotel stands alone against the blue sky, and encoded in the unrelenting grid there seems to be a message nearly as mysterious as the one we’ve yet to unlock at Stonehenge.”

Nicole has come to Israel searching for inspiration for her new novel, and at the Hilton she — like Epstein — encounters shadowy figures who pull her in surprising directions, in her case an investigation into the true fate of Franz Kafka.

 

It has been seven years since Krauss’ last novel, Great House, and in the meantime she, just like her eponymous character, has gone through the dissolution of her marriage — to novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, who also wrote about the dissolution of a marriage in his latest novel, Here I Am.

“He said, she said” literary bookends is a risk when novelists marry novelists, I guess; reading these two books one after the other can feel like a hyper-literary episode of Divorce Court.

It’s easy to see how setting up these self-referential layers would appeal to an intellect as great as Krauss’, that unraveling the assumed distinction between author and character elevates her novel beyond middlebrow concerns. There’s a real audacity to Krauss’s method, especially in a publishing world that can often prioritize…