The Glass Room begins in 1928 with a honeymoon and the building of a house. The Landauer House is an architecturally ambitious, forward-thinking, modern marvel of a house designed by an architect named Rainer Von Abt for Leisel and Viktor Landauer, built on a Czechoslovak hill. They live there extravagantly with their two children, surrounded by their friends and admirers, until WW2 arrives and their lives and, of course, the life of the house itself, are changed forever.
The house is, interestingly, based on a real house, the Villa Tugendhat in Brno. I felt that this framed the story particularly well and I deliberately avoided looking at pictures of the real “Glass Room” until after I read the book; in the event, I was surprised to find that it looked pretty much identical to my imaginings. This, I think, is testament to Mawer’s beautiful prose and lovingly-crafted architectural descriptions.
In this book, the house takes centre stage: lives pass through it, WW2 gathers like “storm clouds” and experiences good, bad and horrendous are framed in the expanses of glass and chrome and onyx that Mawer so vividly describes. It is an interesting and unconventional way of telling a story, and the angle of war seen through wealthy, Czech eyes is a refreshing take on the WW2 novel.
Mawer’s use of language is stunning and the atmosphere and setting are incredibly vivid. You can imagine the 1920s decadence and wealth leading to the creation of such a building. You can picture its inhabitants feeling like they had it all, not least the opportunity to spend their money in such a way – on the future that looked so bright; on an expensive onyx wall that shimmered in and reflected the light; on completely impractical glass walls – with no expense spared. The Glass Room, at the beginning, reflects the hope of the epoch and its owners.
In these ways, The Glass Room is refreshing. It is, however, not without its flaws. The characters are, for the most part, difficult to understand and not particularly likable. There is a lot of infidelity and sex, but not an awful lot of meaningful relationships. I found it quite troubling that most of the adult character relationships were almost entirely defined by sex. The central relationships – between Viktor and Liesel, Liesel and Hana, and Viktor and Katalin – are reasonably well drawn and realistic in their development and portrayal. I especially like the way that Liesel and Hana’s relationship is developed. It is, however, difficult to believe that the vast majority of adult relationships outside of this would be defined completely and utterly by sex. This made it seem as though there was almost a gratuitous nature to some of the sex scenes.
The use of the house as the main character in the book is effective in some ways, but in others it makes it difficult to identify with the human goings-on, including the true human impact of the war. To be fair to Mawer, there are plenty of fantastic human-centred WW2 novels; it did, however, make me feel slightly detached from the story and true horror of the era. The only fully developed character is, in my view, Hana, who is truly tragic, flawed and complicated. Her story is therefore, unsurprisingly, the one that affected me the most.
Viktor says at the beginning of the book “In our wonderful glass house you can see everything”. It becomes apparent through the course of the book that he couldn’t be further from the truth. People are people, no matter their surroundings. Terrible things happen. It is Hana who eloquently says, towards the end of the book, “Don’t be fooled by the Glass Room. It is only as rational as the people who inhabit it”.