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Book Review: The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

The Glass Room is the tale of a wealthy couple living in Eastern Europe just before the outbreak of the second world war.

Depicting the Halcyon years with glittering images of travel, modern architecture and a seething sexual undercurrent, Simon Mawer transports the reader into the mindset of rich, cultured, multi-lingual Europeans looking to a modern way of living after the “war to end all wars”.

The story is one of an architectural project which transcends the relationships, borders, languages and lifetimes of those who live in it. The groundbreaking design serves as a linchpin for past, present and future in the lives of all those who pass through it.

The duality of the language, Czech and German, is combined with duplicity in matters of the heart. Tarts and maidens vie for powerful men in a highly stratified society where wives are for children and mistresses are for fun. Sex is a chore, currency, weapon and ocassionally, an expression of love.

The arrival of the Germans sees all those stories dissipate. Names, addresses, passports and rights are all lost. The strengths and weaknesses which the characters derive  from their social standing and relationships are lost in the panic and destruction of war.

The Glass Room is a page turner with lurid sex scenes, art, war and travel. Changing landscapes, colourful characters and vivid descriptions bring inter-war Europe to life. A well designed structure and poetic grasp of imagery give the narrative life and momentum.

The spectre of war and anti-semitism, which loom over the narrative like a dark cloud has earnt this highly entertaining novel a nomination for the Jewish Quarterly Wingate Prize, which will be announced in June. The book was also shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize and is currently shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.

The book is based upon a real house called the Villa Tugenhat, a modernist masterpiece in Czechoslovakia which can be viewed by clicking here, or watching the video above. The story of the real “Glass Room” architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, is somewhat echoed in that of Mawer’s fictional modernist, Rainer von Abt. Both moved to America to work on skyscrapers and had a sweeping conviction of art being superior to design.

This book does a perfect job of transporting the reader to war-era Eastern Europe. It is emminently readable and thoroughly entertaining. What could be a depressing subject matter is kept fresh with a fast pace, clear style and varied focus.

Villa Tugendhat - the basis for The Glass Room

About Linda Scott

Linda Scott
Linda Scott is Editor in Chief, and a founder of, The Global Herald.

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