The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

The Glass Room – Simon Mawer

Book review of The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

A reviewer of books should not enthuse too much.  You don’t want readers of your reviews to think a. you’re too easily impressed, or b. you are in the pay of the publishers, or c. you are a friend of the author.  None of these apply to me (there are quite a few critical reviews on this website, I never receive inducements to write favourable reviews and I’ve never heard of Simon Mawer before).  

However, this book receives from me the closest I’ve ever been to a standing ovation.  It is just so very, very good.

The Glass Room refers to the dramatic living area of a modernist house built on a hill-side in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s.  Its architect was commissioned by Victor Landauer and his wife Liesel, with a brief to design a house made of glass and steel, devoid of ornamentation or unnecessary decoration, a house fit for a stylish couple, owners of the Landauer company, makers of luxury motor-cars.

The house is built and lives up to expectations, the young couple receiving guests in the glass room, with its onyx walls and its breathtaking views.  Victor and Leisel are wealthy and thoroughly modern couple and their new house matches their style perfectly, “living inside a work of art is an experience of sublime delight – the tranquillity of the large living room and the intimacy of the smaller rooms . . . the most remarkable experience of modern living”.

Simon Mawer follows the history of the house over the next 50 years, but of course the Landauer family and their friends are the main point of the story.  Is it possible to tell the story of a family without also recalling the places in which they live?  

We build our homes as an expression of ourselves and our memories are often centred on the sense of place as much as on those who inhabit those spaces.  Leisel Landauer has her great friend and confidante, the stylish and erratic Hanna.  

Her husband has another friend who come to play a large part in both their lives.  Children are born and grow and find that the house has a place in their lives too, although perhaps retrospectively.

Beginning in the 1930s in Czechoslovakia, Mawer’s story is also about the war and its aftermath.  Victor Landauer is Jewish, and after the Germans take over the Sudetenland, the family flee to Switzerland, leaving Hanna and other friends to watch the house fall into German hands to be used as a laboratory.   

The story follows Hanna and her attempts to survive under a hostile regime.  Meanwhile in Switzerland the Landauers plot their escape out of Europe across the Atlantic and we read of their only partially successful attempts to keep their household together.

Mawer does not leave us wondering about the fate of his characters.  We follow the progress of the house under Soviet rule and later under the new Czcechoslovak state, and in these “flash-forwards” we get glimpses of the lives lived by the Landauers and their friends.

These are the bones of the story, but it is impossible to say more without ruining it for other readers.  What is special about the book is Mawer’s great gifts for character development and his depictions of the terrible human conflicts brought on a family in such unstable times.  

This is a book about the divisions inflicted on Europe in the 1930s and their tragic consequences.  All the characters are marked by their times and some barely recover.  And yet there are passages of lyrical brightness and cathartic resolutions of thirty year old losses which made this reader at least sigh with thankfulness.

I recently read Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, the story of another industrial dynastic family, and was struck by the similarities between the two books.  Really, Simon Mawer has achieved something not much less that Mann’s classic masterpiece and I can only congratulate him on his achievement.  

I am particularly impressed by his research, including a significant amount of linguistic background around the Czech language and its relationship to German.  I do hope that The Glass Room is a serious consideration this year’s Booker Prize – it is certainly well within that league.