Simon Mawer’s latest novel “The Glass Room” (2009) will keep any book club talking for hours on end. In my group we didn’t even wait to get our coats off before we began an animated discussion.
The story is set in Czechoslovakia during the 1920s and ‘30s at the time of Hitler’s rise to power throughout Europe. “Historical novel” is far too limiting a description for this wonderful book. Mawer fills out his story with perspectives on art and design, Modernism, scientific study and classical music. He is also masterful at painting a portrait of a marriage that is strained by infidelity as well as events outside of the pair’s control.
The narrative begins when a privileged young couple decides during their honeymoon to build their dream home. The new husband is Viktor Landauer, a successful automobile maker of Jewish descent. He and his bride, Liesel, want their house to reflect a new spirit that is emerging in Czechoslovakia during the relatively stable ‘20s. They commission an architect, Rainer von Abt, who calls himself “a poet of space and structure,” to design a home for them on the side of a hill overlooking their town.
They all agree upon a house that will reflect the modernist view of “form without ornament.” So the architect builds a place characterized by space and light, glass and metal. The largest glass-walled room is on the lower floor. It is captivating space; guests to the couple’s new house gasp when entering it.
Mawer writes about the partygoers at a gala held there one night. “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.”
When Hitler’s army marches into Austria, the fear felt by the Landauers becomes a reality. Things change quickly for the couple and their two children. Viktor’s Jewish background propels him to devise a plan of escape for his family. Mawer follows their drama in haunting short chapters. The abandoned house is used by the occupying powers over the next decades.
I would compare Mawer’s writing to the work of a gifted cinematographer. He creates scene after scene so vividly that they have a powerful emotional impact. Trust me. You will want to talk about this book for a long time.