Review: The Glass Room

Posted 17 April, 2013 by Lianne in Books / 2 Comments

The Glass Room
By: Simon Mawer
Format: Paperback; my copy

Honeymooners Viktor and Liesel Landauer are filled with the optimism and cultural vibrancy of central Europe of the 1920s when they meet modernist architect Rainer von Abt. He builds for them a home to embody their exuberant faith in the future, and the Landauer House becomes an instant masterpiece. Viktor and Liesel, a rich Jewish mogul married to a thoughtful, modern gentile, pour all of their hopes for their marriage and budding family into their stunning new home, filling it with children, friends, and a generation of artists and thinkers eager to abandon old-world European style in favor of the new and the avant-garde. But as life intervenes, their new home also brings out their most passionate desires and darkest secrets. As Viktor searches for a warmer, less challenging comfort in the arms of another woman, and Liesel turns to her wild, mischievous friend Hana for excitement, the marriage begins to show signs of strain. The radiant honesty and idealism of 1930 quickly evaporate beneath the storm clouds of World War II. As Nazi troops enter the country, the family must leave their old life behind and attempt to escape to America before Viktor’s Jewish roots draw Nazi attention, and before the family itself dissolves.

As the Landauers struggle for survival abroad, their home slips from hand to hand, from Czech to Nazi to Soviet possession and finally back to the Czechoslovak state, with new inhabitants always falling under the fervent and unrelenting influence of the Glass Room. Its crystalline perfection exerts a gravitational pull on those who know it, inspiring them, freeing them, calling them back, until the Landauers themselves are finally drawn home to where their story began.

I mentioned it here and there but for the past few years I’ve been trying to keep track of the longlists and shortlists of some of the major book prizes. The 2009 shortlist for the Man Booker Prize seemed like an interesting year; I enjoyed reading Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger (been meaning to re-read it) and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (commentary). The premise of this novel caught my attention so I decided to check it out. Contains some minor spoilers ahead!

I enjoyed reading Simon Mawer’s prose. There are some lovely and interesting lines here and there and his prose very much reflected the sleekness and minimalism that accompanies this period of history and Viktor and Liesel’s search for the modern. I enjoyed reading the details about the parts of the house, it really does sound unique and the vocabulary certainly reflects that uniqueness compared to the fashion of the time and the old architecture found in the rest of the country.

The premise of this novel was also very interesting, chronicling the married life of Liesel and Viktor Landauer. I enjoyed the early chapters of them travelling around during their honeymoon and meeting Rainer von Abt and the construction of their home and the Glass Room. But as the story went on and the timeline started inching closer towards World War Two and the devastating effects it had not only in Europe but also for the country of Czechoslovakia, my interest in the story started waning. I felt like I was missing some details about Liesel and Viktor’s lives and where the drift in their relationship started happening; why did Viktor start his affair with Kata? Why is Liesel so distant? Why didn’t they try to work it out more? Were all of these events part of this whole “modern” movement that they kept talking about early in the novel? The characters were also annoying at times with Viktor’s pandering of the modern, Liesel always going “Why do we have to leave?” and her and Hana being seemingly clueless about how serious the political situation was (okay, the latter is likely also coloured by the fact that, as a reader, I’m reading the unfolding of events in hindsight). The prose in this case didn’t help; while its clinical approach worked in terms of the Glass Room and the house that they shared, I felt like I couldn’t quite connect with the characters and feel sympathy for them.

By the end of the novel, I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to take away from this story. The gradual separation between Viktor and Liesel was depressing and Liesel and Hana’s relationship kept going back and forth (on top of never quite understanding Liesel’s behaviour as the novel progressed) that I just felt ambivalent about it at the end. If the point of the novel was to show the complicated nature of human relationships, it would’ve made a better impression in my mind had I actually connected with the characters and understood them more (why they were the way they were, maybe a bit more backstory on who Viktor and Liesel were and were like before the start of the novel, etc.).

Overall, The Glass Room was an okay read for me. The backdrop about the coming of the Second World War, the disturbing effects it had on the country, the use of German and Czech words throughout the novel and the prose about the house and the Glass Room was interesting to read. However the human drama left me rather disconnected so it wasn’t as haunting as I thought it would’ve been.

Rating: ★★½☆☆

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2 Responses to “Review: The Glass Room”

  1. This sounds like a very interesting book! Usually, I’m not attracted to WWII-related plots because I just can’t take it and end up sobbing. However, this high-class-marriage-focused plot seems to provide distance enough as both partners seem more interested in their own private (and separate) lives.

    I had never heard of the title or the author, so thanks!

    • lol I know what you mean, novels set during WW2 tend to be pretty sad (yet I still keep reading them, lol; I like how it always amps up the stakes in the story). But in this novel, WW2 served as a kind of instrument, I guess, for fueling the plot forward.

      This author is pretty interesting, from what I’ve briefly glanced of his other titles, they’re pretty eclectic 🙂

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