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After reading The Fall by Simon Mawer I had been on the lookout for other books he had written so I was very pleased when a friend selected The Glass Room as the designated read for our Book Club.
The book arrived and the cover didn't make it all that appealing, it had a partial picture of a man and woman in 1940s style dress, it really didn't give a lot of clue to the content.
Viktor Landauer is a successful, forward thinking, young man with a share in his family car business. He marries his sweetheart, Liesel, and they take a luxurious honeymoon in Venice. The year is 1928 and as smart, young things the Landauers decide that a traditional Czech house is not for them so they engage a gifted architect, Rainer von Abt, to create a modern masterpiece on a piece of land that Liesels parents have gifted to them in their home town.
After much planning and a prolonged build the young couple end up with a breath-taking home with the major living area being the Glass Room. This unique space becomes the centre of their universe, they hold lavish parties, they have intimate dinners and they start to raise their family within. Eventually clouds start to build on the horizon for the wealthy pair as events in Europe start to encroach on their lives. As the Nazis head in the direction of their beloved homeland Viktor, who is Jewish, decides that his only option is to flee with his family.
Their stylish residence soon falls into the hands of the Nazis who have other uses for the open plan accommodation. As the years pass the house changes hands several times but surely the Landauers are still the rightful owners and have a claim on their home?
I must admit that I initially found this book quite difficult to get into. I think the names were difficult for me and I couldn't work out where about in Europe the events were taking place and I seemed to have trouble working out the details. However once I had stumbled through the first proper chapter I became far more engrossed in the book and wanted to find out exactly how the story would progress.
The book starts with a return scene. I actually found this a little off-putting as things that were said about certain characters meant that all the way through the book I was waiting for things to happen that I knew must and it also took away some of the suspense as a character that went missing during the story itself was in the return scene so I knew that she would reappear.
I found that some of the characters seemed to lack any real depth and I found I just couldn't relate to them. I do not (unfortunately) live the glamorous, easy life of Leisel but I am a wife and mother but couldn't relate to those aspects of her character either. After the birth of one of her children she was particularly unwell and her behaviour changed but her feelings and attitudes were not explored enough to make the reader sympathise with her.
Viktor seemed the most believable of the characters although I am sure he would have been bemused by the changes in his wife and would have reacted to them more. He did start a relationship with someone else at one point but it was very difficult to tell how emotionally attached he was to this new lady for quite a while.
Hana, leisels best friend, was almost a caricature. She appeared to be oversexed and bi-sexual and her behaviour seemed very extreme for the time she was living in but her devoted husband and her best friend both turned a blind eye and didn't seem to think any of the behaviour was out of the ordinary.
The title The Glass Room was obviously going to point to the story revolving around the house and it is quite difficult sometimes to decide if the story is about the house or the family, this is not a bad thing as it adds an extra dimension to what you are reading. However I did find the constant reference to the room, the glass panels and the onyx wall repetitive. The original description as the house was being built was excellent so the reader had already created an excellent picture inside their head; they don't needed it to be constantly re-enforced.
I also found that the author put various sex-scenes in the book as if to a formula. Whilst reading it I almost felt as if I had read X number of pages so now there will be more sex, it didn't always seem to fit into the story but it seemed as if the author felt a need to add it on a regular basis. I am also not sure that lots of random sex on a cold linoleum floor in front of a bank of windows would appeal to every character in the book although it appeared to!
The most griping part of The Glass Room for me was the gradual change in the lifestyles of the Czech people as time progressed. There were conversations at dinner parties laughing at the chance of invasion but these conversations gradually changed in seriousness and panic as darkness spread over the country. Mixed marriage couples had to reassess their futures and people's lives would change for ever. I felt that the author did an excellent job of slowly introducing the growing menace and it was at this point that I felt the closest and most sympathetic to the characters position.
I found the timeline throughout the book a little hard to follow and it was sometimes quite difficult to pick up on the passage of time and also it did seem to jump about a little.
Another problem I had with the book was the frequent use of German or Czech words. I have no knowledge of either language and since there was no glossary I had to look things up which distracts from the flow of the story. Sometimes these words were important in working out what a situation was about or the rank of a person being spoken to so a reference would have helped.
I realise that this review does sound rather negative about the book. This is probably an unfair conclusion as it is a beautifully written piece of work with fantastic descriptions and lovely use of language. I think I just had such high hopes for it that I was disappointed. It was an enjoyable enough read but it was a bit like a film that is 20 minutes too long, I really felt it could have ended earlier and the ending could have been better with more examination of the characters attitudes on the final events.
This is a book that I will happily pass on to friends as it is an unusual story that provides an engaging read but it will never fall into my list of all time favourites.
The Glass Room is a historical novel, set in pre-war Czechoslovakia. Rich in symbolism, it is a novel of ideas, primary of which seem to be the concept of social decline and moral decay. The Glass room excellently balances metaphor with a strong plot, characterised by almost dreamlike narratives. It is a compelling read, but somewhat daunting in places.
The "glass room" is a house designed and built in 1929 for Viktor and Liesel Landauer, wealthy newlyweds. The young Jewish couple are on the cusp of a long future together and have cemented their destiny by ordering the construction of a dream home, which is situated in a fictional city in Czechoslovakia. The house is both a house within the novel and the framework of the novel itself. For it is within the house that all the narrative interactions and plot twists occur and it is the language of the house's architecture, which is used to tell the story. This is the story of a house and its occupants, rather than a story about the occupants of a house.
In the initial stages of the book, the house, which has been designed in the sleek and stark modernist style, represents the ambitions, confidence and optimism of a peaceful future in Europe. It is rational and reasonable, having no use for the flare and fancy of other forms of architecture. The Glass Room is a happy home for the Landauers throughout the 1930s, but as the close of the decade draws near, the couple remain blissfully unaware of the gigantic changes that are about to unfold, changing their lives forever and with them, the nature of their beloved home.
Once vacated by the Laudauers, The Glass House takes on many different occupants and serves an array of different purposes. It becomes a Nazi biometric research facility, a Communist clinic for children with polio and finally a museum. Each time the building changes hands, the tone and feeling of The Glass Room changes with it, allowing the novel to explore a selection of different ideas, all framed within the structure of the house and couched in the language of its architecture.
The Glass Room is a complex book. It seeks to contextualise historical change within one building and in doing so, both loses and gains something. Too much seems to be hung on the architecture of The Glass Room, making the narrative feel a bit restricted, but at the same stroke, the approach is innovative and stimulating.