My first sighting of Simon Mawer’s booker-shortlisted The Glass Room was on A Common Reader’s blog back in February. I fell in love with the cover and bought the book even before I’d read Tom’s effusive praise. Since then readerly applause has been ringing louder and louder: KevinfromCanada, Farmlanebooks, and both Wonderang and My Spy In Edinburgh (my Edinburgh book festival buddies) awarded 5-star accolades. It appears the Booker judges agree and so Lizzy finally opened the pages, settled down comfortably and began to read.
416 pages later I wondered what the fuss is about. In theory I should have adored it. A historical novel revolving around the drama of mid-20th century Europe. Most of it set in a German-speaking area with informed asides on the German language. The English title “The Glass Room” not conveying the ambiguities of the German equivalent. While it places emphasis on the architectural beauty of the house that is built during the first section of the novel, the English phrase lacks the concept of space (German Raum)- an area where all things are open and transparent. Echoes too of the Nazi concept of Lebensraum – a space in which to expand and, of course, the novel’s event show what that led to in Czechoslovakia.
I have issues with the structure. Is this a history of a house? If so, there are far too many pages offsite. Or is it an examination of the impact of history on the individuals living through it? If so, there are too many pages focusing on the house. It’s a tough balancing act which Mawer achieves admirably in an absorbing first half. However, that balance is disturbed when the Landauers go into exile, and the novel loses a sparkle which only ever returns (for me at least) when Hana flirts with danger during her affair with Dr Stahl (Eng. Dr Steel – is this clever or just lazy given the emphasis on steel and glass as building materials?)
I have an even bigger problem with the characters. Not with the fact that their hidden and deceptive love lives challenge the inherent openness and transparency of The Glass Room. But with the fact that I never believed that they would be so accepting of each other’s sexual foibles. I found it so dull that Mawer repeated the pattern of Hana’s relationship with Liesel in the final section of the novel.
I realise that this review is becoming a hachette job. That’s because I’m pinpointing the reasons why I’m unconvinced of the novel’s 5-star brilliance. However I should balance this piece with the good things that are to be found otherwise my star rating is going to seem inconsistent.
I liked the ambitious timeframing and the concept of using the house as a focal point from which to depict the havoc wrought during these traumatic times. This prevented a wallowing in the excesses that have been catalogued time and time again, preserving a distance from Nazi cruelty without losing the point that the dark forces of history are more powerful than the individual; that one’s roots (in this case Jewishness) aren’t so easily escaped. The affair between Hana and Dr Stahl was always threatening and, interestingly, it was the only time when Hana emerged as a real flesh and blood character. The foreshadowing of Hana’s fate in the story of Dr Stahl’s marriage well-judged. The prose flowed well throughout and, as you would expect from me, brownie points were awarded for the German language sections.
Unfortunately though my memories of this book are of the weight of expectations unfulfilled. There’s no doubt that, on Lizzy’s Literary Life at least, this novel is a victim of its own success with others.