book review – The Glass Room – Simon Mawer

For a brief moment caught up in the excitement of the Booker Prize it seemed like a good idea to read a few of them. Reading them all was never going to happen before the prize was given because of time and money constraints but I did manage to read The Little Stranger and this book before starting the eventual winner Wolf Hall.

In many respects coming to this story after reading Eva Figes it has echoes of a Jewish family torn from their home and friends by the war. As the forces of evil draw nearer to the Czech location of the main family so does the need to escape. But they are not just leaving behind friends, family and their lives. They are also leaving behind their modern home with its glass room.

The story charts the development of the house, from an idea conceived as Viktor and Liesel honeymoon and meet an Austrian architect, to its building then finally occupation. The glass room encourages the characters that inhabit that space to be themselves and in a sense of seeing through objects it is a place where pretence drops.

The dropping of inhibitions of course leads to a fair amount of sex. In a book that starts slowly sex becomes a theme that threatens to overtake the architecture as Viktor enjoys his Viennese mistress, Liesel dabbles in a bit of Lesbianism and elsewhere most of their friends seem to be at it as well.

In a cinematic sense the characters that inhabit the house operate in the foreground but the house and the glass room are always there and the camera stays on the house allowing people to enter and leave back into the wings.

And as the years clock by the entrance and departure of characters happens with more regularity. The house remains, even through the bombs and the turn from free society to one of Stalin’s satellites. It not only remains but acts as a magnet to draw back former owners and those who remembered it in its first happy years. It provides a platform for the loose ends to be tied up as the remaining cast converge on the house.

But in terms of the wider themes you have to wonder what was being said. There is a debate about traditionalism versus modernism and the way that the house continues to produce reactions is something that would divide those who visited. Against a background of a troubled period in history it is also raising the question of whether or not modern, and you tend to think of things like V2 rockets at this point, is all good.

The glass also acts as a metaphor about transparency. Most of the characters have secrets, lies and ambitions that the glass room somehow exposes and strips back. In that space, protected by war, love continues to bloom until the end. You have to conclude that this perhaps missed out on the Booker because the story loses power after the family leave the house and the attempts to tie-up loose ends are perhaps too easily done.

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