Simon Mawer – The Glass Room

06Dec09

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2009, Simon Mawer’s immense novel revolves around The Glass Room, or, Der Glasraum: A modernist house resulting from an architect whose maxim is ornamentation is crime.

The conception of the house happens when Victor (a Jew, who owns an automobile manufacturing company) and Liesel Landauer are gifted a plot of land by Liesel’s parents, on their wedding. The parents suggest building a good and solid house; yet, Victor, looking into the future of Czechoslovakia, a young nation of hope, conceives a modernist house, without the fortresses, and gothic windows. He actively searches for an architect to undertake this commission, and while the young couple honeymoon in Vienna, they meet Rainer von Abt, a self-proclaimed poet of space and structure, who desires to take Man out of the cave and float him in the air; to give him a glass space to inhabit. And, so the the wondrous Glass Room is born.

Once completed, it had become a palace of light, light bouncing off the chrome pillars, light refulgent on the walls, light glistening on the dew in the garden, light reverberating from glass – a masterpiece created by von Abt for the Landauers. The time is 1930s though, and the nation of hope is soon going to find out that the future is not as optimistic as they foresaw.

As history unfolds, and Czechoslovakia is invaded by the Nazis, the young couple flee the country for Switzerland, where they hope to build a stable life, with their two children. The relationships that were initiated early on in the book: Victor’s almst obsessive affair with a prostitute, and Liesel’s close friendship with Hana (a “modern” non-orthodox vivacious character), run much stronger now, as Victor and Liesel drift apart, but remain married. These intense relationships and emotions carry the book for the most part.

However, the main protagonist of the book isn’t any person, but The Glass Room itself. So, when the family flees, the focus shifts to the Nazi lab that is set up there, which runs “tests” on people, in order to prove that the Jews are indeed inferior to the Nazis. A new host of characters are introduced, who play their short part exceptionally well. Once the Nazis leave, Der Glasraum is owned by the Soviet, for their lodgings. And then, it becomes a children’s hospital, and as before, a new host of characters are introduced. Finally, the Czechoslovakian state wants to take it over, and make it a museum.

One would think that the myriad of characters, plots and time-lines would make this book cluttered, and cliched; that it would run the risk of trying to be too profound; that the varying emotions and relationships would be overdone and hyperbolic. However, Mawer, via some artistry (or waving of the wand), manages to escape these criticisms for this absolutely fantastic book, with the atypical protagonist.

At the beginning of the book is an author’s note, that reads The Glass Room is a work of fiction, but the house and its settings are not fictional. A little researching indicated that the house is based on Villa Tugendhat, designed by the German architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, in Brno. It was built between 1928 and 1930, and is said to be the icon of modern architecture.

Rating: A+

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13 Responses to “Simon Mawer – The Glass Room”

  1. 1 Pam

    Your review is fantastic Cookie! I am going to go out and buy The Glass room this week (and promise not to let it go the way of Rebecca…) I have read a lot of good things about it, but was waiting for your stamp of approval – so glad you enjoyed it!

  2. Such a fabulous review; thank you. I did buy this but now to read it…LOL

  3. This book has been calling out to me for a couple of times now. Will I finally relent? I’m considering which of the Booker longlist/shortlist/winner that I should read for year 2009 (my goal is just one for each year :). I’m interested in The Children Book too. Mm.. decision..decision..

    • Decisions, decisions indeed. I found The Children’s Book way too daunting. Same with Wolf Hall. On the other hand, I loved the cover on this, and then everyone who read it told me it was fantabulous. Easy choice, really!

      Best of luck with the decision though – hope you enjoy whichever one you pick. :)

  4. Great review! I was reminded that this is one of the most enjoyable books that I have read this year/published this year. A house as character is not a new concept but I admired how Mawer made it seem original and how he deviated from the norm by following the house through the decades rather than its occupants.

    • Thanks:)

      I thought Mawer did a great job with this book, and the character of the house always shone through. It was refreshing as well, as we saw things from so many different points of view: people who escaped, people who stayed on, the Nazis, the Soviets, the post-war residents etc.

  5. I have heard so much about this book and so many bloggers have mentioned it as part of reading through the Booker. I really do want to read it.

  6. I’m so pleased that you enjoyed this one. It really should have won the Booker prize this year and was one of my favourite reads of 2009. I’m hoping to read The Fall soon. I really hope that it will be as good as this one.

    • I’ll be looking out for your review on that one.

      Thanks a lot for insisting I read The Glass Room though – think that’s what eventually made me buy a copy, and I still can’t get over how much I loved this book.


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