The Glass Room – Book Review

For the moment it was without form or substance, yet it existed, diffuse, diverse, in their minds and in the mind of Ranier von Abt. It existed in the manner that ideas and ideals, shifting and insubstantial, may exist. Space, light, glass; some spare furniture; windows looking out on a garden; a sweep of shining floor, travertine, perhaps; white and ivory and the gleam of chrome. The elements moved, evolved, transformed, metamorphosed in the way that they do in dreams, changing shape and form and yet, to the dreamer, remaining what they always were: der Glasraum, der Glastraum, a single letter change metamorphosing one into the other, the Glass Space becoming the Glass Dream, a dream that went with the spirit of the brand new country in which they found themselves, a state in which being Czech or German or Jew would not matter, in which democracy would prevail and art and science would combine to bring happiness to all people. – from The Glass Room, pages 25-26 –

Viktor, a wealthy Jewish businessman, and Liesel Landauer are filled with hopes for their future when they marry and hire architect Rainer Von Abt to build them a home filled with light and space; a home built “upside down”;  the main living area an open room with one entire wall made up of glass which looks out over the city below. With its milky white floors and onyx dividing wall which captures the setting sun, their home represents all that is wonderful about their future, a future which lies in a small Czechoslovakian city in the 1920s, just after a new Constitution has been installed with a representative democracy. But what looks to be a promising government is stressed by the multiple cultures living within one country. Adolf Hitler is poised to take advantage, and as Viktor and Liesel add two children to their family, uncertainty taints their future.

They crowd into the space of the Glass Room like passengers on the observation deck of a luxury liner. Some of them maybe peering out through the windows onto the pitching surface of the city but, in their muddle of Czech and German, almost all are ignorant of the cold outside and the gathering storm clouds, the first sign of the tempest that is coming. – from The Glass Room, page 78 –

Viktor develops a relationship with a poor Jewish woman early on in the novel. His fascination with Kata eventually becomes an obsession which he cannot abandon. And yet, he remains in his marriage to Liesel. This complicated arrangement becomes more complex when the family is forced to flee to Switzerland before the Germans invade, taking Kata and her young daughter with them.

Although Mawer opens the novel with Liesel and Viktor, he makes room for other complex, and perhaps more interesting characters. Hana, Liesel’s friend who is married to a Jewish man much older than her, was for me the most fascinating of all the characters. Hana is intelligent, daring, obscene, and spirited. She enjoys sex with both men and women, and is not afraid to risk. She is also the most tragic character in the book.

Simon Mawer’s magnificent novel uses the futuristic house with the Glass Room as a symbol around which to build his story. Do not be fooled – this is not a novel about a house, it is a novel about the people who pass through the house; it is a novel of passion, of history, of the secrets which burn beneath a seemingly normal existence.

A house without people has no dimensions. It just is. An enclosed space, a box. – from The Glass Room, page 308 –

Is the Glass Room a place for secrets? Surely it is a place of openness and transparency, a place where no one can tell lies. – from The Glass Room, page 370 –

The Glass Room is also about a country and its displaced people. Czechoslovakian history is confusing and tragic. Once a sovereign state in 1918, it ceased to exist from 1939 to 1945 when it was divided and partially incorporated into Nazi Germany. From 1945-48 the country was governed by a coalition government of Communist ministers; and from 1948 to 1989 it was a Communist state. Finally, in 1990, Czechoslovakia found its freedom as a federal democratic republic consisting of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

That autumn the Great Powers assisted at dismemberment of the the country. They witnessed the cutting off of limbs from the body, the severing of arteries, the snapping of ligaments and tendons, the sawing of bones. That autumn the Czechoslovak army stood down and watched while men in field grey tramped into Eger and Karlsbad, into Teplitz and Liberec. In the north, like a vulture taking an eye from a dying man, the Polish army snatched art of Czech Silesia. In the east Hungary took parts of Slovakia. Everywhere refugees fled from the advancing soldiers like herbivores scattering before a pack of predators. – from The Glass Room, page 175 –

Things just happen. One country occupies another; people flee, scatter across the countryside, some here, some there, like thrown dice. – from The Glass Room, page 145 –

Much of The Glass Room covers the period of German invasion – and it is the lead-up to that which provides a great deal of tension in the book. As Viktor and Liesel’s marriage struggles, the house remains a place of peace where friends come together for meals and to celebrate art and music.

They’ve finished dinner and are sitting in front of the onyx wall. They come together these days for mutual comfort. The house has become a refuge for them, the Glass Room, that least fortress-like of constructions, bringing the consolation of reason and calm, while outside the confines of their particular lives, the world is crumbling. – from The Glass Room, page 159 –

Mawer uses sexual tension to also create conflict. Many of the characters seek affairs outside of their committed relationships, and Mawer’s writing is at times graphic and disturbing. Despite this, Mawer can also be quite subtle – alluding to acts rather than describing them. It was this subtlety of language which captivated me. Mawer intersperses German and Czechoslovakian phrases throughout the book, many of which have duplicity of meaning and add depth and humor to the novel.

The Glass Room is a provocative and daring novel which is a passionate portrayal of the people who struggled through an irrational and frightening period in history. At times, I felt my heart would break for the characters; I dreaded their future while they looked forward with optimism. As with the sleek and symmetrical lines of the house which they share, Mawer’s characters’ lives unfold with a symmetry which is at once brilliant and tragic.

Although the house in the novel is fictional, readers may be interested to know that Mawer was inspired by a real house which was built in Czechoslovakia in the the 1920s. I did not look at the “real” house until after I was finished reading the novel, and I was amazed at how accurately I had pictured it in my mind’s eye…which is a compliment to the descriptive talent of the author.

Readers who are interested in historical fiction set around WWII in Europe, will find Mawer’s book an engaging and thoughtful read. Likewise, those who enjoy engrossing literary fiction will not want to miss The Glass Room which was short listed for the 2009 Booker Prize.

Highly recommended.

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  1. Wow! I struggled with this book, but I have a feeling that I’m just not smart enough for it. I’m glad you enjoyed it so much.

  2. I loved this book too! I really hoped that it would win the Booker prize last year (after my favourite The Wilderness failed to make the shortlist) I hope to read some more of his books soon, starting with The Fall. It is great to discover a new author – especially when they already have a reasonably long back catalogue!

  3. Sounds very intriguing and complex. I really enjoyed your review of this one and I’m not entirely sure that it would be one that I would read but I find the story very interesting!

    • Andi on April 7, 2010 at 12:53

    This just makes me want to read it MORE! I wish my library would hurry up and order it!

    • EL Fay on April 7, 2010 at 15:16

    This book sounds excellent. The Modernist aspect – art, architecture, music – is especially fascinating to me because I love this time period so much for its creativity. This is definitely going on my TBR list.

    • Teddy on April 7, 2010 at 21:12

    This one is on my TBR as a must read. It sounds like it covers a lot of historical ground as well as having interesting characters and lyrical writing. It’s even higher on my list now that I have read your review!

  4. Ah yes – absolutely loved this book, and it managed to make me fascinated with the architecture of such a ‘modern’ house, not something I am generally into.

    What I found so interesting – and it is something that is true for much of Central and Eastern Europe – is the ever-changing borders, appearing and disappearing of defined countries etc. I think we often forget how ‘young’ some modern-day countries are, despite the fact their peoples and cultures have been around for thousands of years.


  5. Marvelous review, Wendy! I’d not heard of this book and the subject matter is of great interest to me, so it’s going on the list. It sounds complex–I hope I can stay awake through the historical details of Czechoslovakia!

    • Anna on April 8, 2010 at 08:20

    I’m really looking forward to reading this one. It sounds wonderful. I hope it’s okay to link to your review on War Through the Generations.

    • velvet on April 10, 2010 at 06:34

    good review! it does sound complex, but really engaging. ok, on my must-read list!

    • Wendy on April 11, 2010 at 16:11

    Kathy: Don’t sell yourself short – I am SURE you are smart enough for the book…it just wasn’t your cup-o-tea…and that really is okay!

    Jackie: I remember this was one you loved (another we agree on!). I am also eager to read more of Mawer’s books.

    Staci: Thanks – I don’t think this book will appeal to everyone, but it is just so beautifully written.

    Andi: I am looking forward to reading your thoughts once you’ve read it.

    El Fay: Well if you love architecture/art…you will absolutely love this book. Can’t wait to read your thoughts on it.

    Teddy: It is definitely an interesting book around the history of that time – haunting really.

    Packabook (Suzi): YES! I am also not a huge fan of reading about architecture, but this book made me care about it in a way I never had before. It is an amazing thing how the borders were constantly in flux…something that we in America have a hard time relating to…

    Les: It is not boring at all – and the historical parts are not as detailed as I wrote in my review (much of the book assumes a certain knowledge)…I just thought having the detail would help people understand the setting better 🙂

    Anna: Yes, it is fine to link me through your challenge blog – this is a terrific book for War through the Generations.

    Velvet: It is definitely engaging 🙂

  6. Wow, this sounds powerful. I’m going to have make time to read it.

    • Wendy on April 28, 2010 at 07:02

    Serena: It is a powerful book – it has been a little while since I read it, and I am still thinking of the characters from time to time…which I think is a good sign that it is a good book!

  7. The Glass Room holds many things: war, turmoil, loss, joy, and love in its many shades, “tastes and scents”. The glass room becomes the physical container of these things, a stage. The lucid prose and tight storyline ensure that the book does not labour under the weight of its symbolism.

  8. Wonderfully written review! It gave me a clear idea on how the book is and removed my wrong notions about the book that came from its title. Thanks

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