The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

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The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A genteel examination of the nature of humanity set against the beauty of modernist architecture and the horrors of genocide. Understated emotion. Recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416, Date: January 2009
Publisher: Little, Brown
ISBN: 978-1408700778

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The guest arrives at the house. Guided, insofar as she needs to be, by her daughter, Liesel steps towards a home she hasn't seen in 30-odd years, and will never see again. She is blind now but, for all that history has thrown at it and taken from it, the house is still there. The Landauer House, das Landauerhaus, in any language, and it has seen a few, is still itself. It is also part her, part Viktor and (of course) a great deal Rainer Abt. She doesn't need to see it.

Rewind. A long time ago, when the world was different. Before the war there was in Europe a time of illusory peace and optimism. This was the time of modernism. Chemises were becoming loose; skirts were daringly short; women went without whalebone. And in architecture too, everything was about space, and movement, and air, and light. This was a happy time. The newly married Viktor and Liesel commission the acclaimed architect Abt to build them a home. More than a home: a masterpiece. A work of art. Glass and steel. Travertine floors or sleek linoleum. And an onyx wall that captures the sunset in a flame of stone.

It is set into the hillside in the suburbs of a provincial Czech town. The view and the garden are all part of the design. The Landauers are happy. Their children are born, their business thrives. If there no dark corners in their home, some begin to emerge in their tidy lives.

Times change. The Nazis come, and later the Russians. It matters then, whether you are Czech, or German, or Moravian. Or Jew.

The Landauers flee their home and Mawer's tale diverges following both them and their friends and family, and the house and the strangers who come to it, through everything that happens next. The great deeds of nations, and the smaller lusts and betrayals of individuals.

Of course, given the setting it focuses on the nature of humanity. All that happened in central Europe through the late 1930s, the war years, and into the cold war that followed, is caught in the snapshot of a few lives. What is it that defines a person as being of this race or that; this religion or that? What is it that brings them to a personal sense of ethics or not – and if so, what does it take to take them beyond it? Mawer doesn't feel the need to take us into the horror of those times. The foulest deeds have the merest allusions. His power is that of the allusion… and illusion. It is only by knowing the history that you feel the power of what isn't said. That feels true to life. Most of those who lived it, prefer not to speak of it.

A lot is not said in The Glass Room. It lurks around the edges. Even those of the basest motives retain their humanity.

Liesel's blindness is the key to the novel on so many levels. Firstly it is a reflection of the character's naivety in her trust of people, her failure to see what happening around her – but then that becomes a wilful ignoring rather than an ignorance. A choice to do what she will, rather than what circumstances might dictate she should, and to bring others to heel at her surprisingly uncompromising compromises. So many blind eyes were turned at the time, but not all of them in the service of evil.

Beyond that the personal stories however, the novel centres on illusion in the wider context. Like the fire in the onyx wall, a passing vision, a play of the light, art and life, past and future, are illusions. So what then of beauty? Of love? All of the characters speak of love, but more than one of them says that it too is an illusion. Only one feels that the store of love is infinite and in all its variations, the love of one does not diminish the capacity to love another.

Mawer asks us to consider: does anything exist intrinsically of itself? Or is everything relative?

Where should our loyalties lie? Does duty come before love? And where, exactly, does socially-defined morality fit in the mess of human relationships?

Snaking through the whole is the exploration of language. English, Czech, German, Russian. The Glass Room doesn't capture Abt's design for example. In German the word is Raum, not Zimmer. Space, rather than room – the English duplicity not being available, the German is more precise, less inclusive. To someone else room becomes Pokov - peace or tranquillity. Variations that suggest that even our definitions are illusory and fluid. Lost in translation.

That Mawer got the house so perfectly is possibly not surprising. He has almost certainly been there. It really exists. Both it and the city of Mesto (City) are disguises so thin that he owns up to them in the author's note. Anything we take from his powers of imagination, however, we have to hand back in recognition of his observation and description. As with his previous novels he eschews both the lyrical and the dramatic, yet still manages to create a piece that is emotional and beautiful. Somehow at once genteel and shot through with suspense.

I'm inclined to agree with the Guardian's Ian Sanson – they'll never capture it on film: so treat yourself to the book. Recommended.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For more of Mawer's unique exploration of history try Swimming to Ithaca focusing on English colonialism in 1950s Cyprus; or to stay with the second world war My Enemy's Cradle by Sarah Young will give further insights into Nazi ideology & methodolgy that provides a subplot to the Glass Room.

Booklists.jpg The Glass Room by Simon Mawer is in the Man Booker Prize 2009.

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