Monday, January 4, 2010

Book Review: "The Glass Room" by Simon Mawer

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer is a 400-page work of fiction set in the time just before and during World War II. The story revolves around a house of unique architecture in Czechoslovakia and the various individuals who inhabit it through the years. Designed by a forward-thinking architect for a wealthy Jewish car-manufacturing mogul, the house has its own days of glory when a happy family and their friends appreciate its beauty, and days of degradation when it is hit by the wayward bombs of warfare and inhabited by both Germans and Soviets at different times. Eventually, it becomes what others think it is suited for and finally settles into its own preserved history as a museum of sorts.

Throughout the house's many faces and purposes, we follow the paths of various characters who end up being connected on different levels, some casually, some intimately. The Glass Room is a very sensuous book, which makes the more intimate moments bearable. I must admit that during the first 200 pages, I felt that the book was a bit of a soap opera and the plot was lacking in true tension. However, once the Germans invaded, the storyline gripped me and I had a hard time putting the book down. There's something to be said about knowing the future within a story, because it is our own history. The entire time I feared for the fate of these characters. Mawer did a wonderful job of illustrating the ignorance and innocence within Europe at a time when pure evil terrorized it.

By the time I reached the end of the novel, I could appreciate why Mawer chose to slowly build up the story. He needed the reader to experience the more mundane days before the war. He needed us to care for the characters and see them in situations where they had some semblance of control, and in other situations where control was completely out of their grasp.

I'm thinking that if you liked Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, you'll probably appreciate The Glass Room too. Both books have a historic perspective and both books intricately weave the lives of several characters over time. Both books explore the angles of intimacy, loss, revenge, reunion and resurrection.

The Glass Room earns the honor of being the third book I've read in my life that made me cry. The first was The Bridges of Madison County by Robert Waller. That is one book that will stay in my collection forever. The second was an unpublished memoir written by Ellise Rossen, a friend of the family. I've always said that if an established publisher does not pick up her manuscript, I'm going to publish it myself.

I think what pushed me over the edge and caused me to get teary-eyed at the end of The Glass Room was that it did not end how one would expect a story like this to end. We were treated to the fate of some secondary characters, which forces the reader to come to the realization that the smaller parts of the story were seeping into the subconscious all along.

This is a finely crafted book. History has always been my least favorite subject, because my history classes throughout my schooling were so dull and uninspiring, taught by men in suits who spoke in monotones with thick accents. My mother is big on reading historic novels, but I would never take up her offers to read them when she was done. However, I think that this book has influenced and inspired me to expand the scope of my reading choices.

Four languages are spoken throughout this book: German, Czech, Russian and English. The book is written in English with only a few German, Czech and Russian words interspersed to remind us that the story takes place in a foreign land and to illustrate communication styles between characters. The foreign languages are inserted in dialog where the reader will most likely be able to decipher their meaning. Mawer begins the book with a "Note on Pronunciation", not wanting to leave us guessing.

Overall, I appreciate Mawer's subtlety in presenting information to the reader throughout the novel. I was repeatedly experiencing enlightened moments when I said to myself, "Ah ha, I know what is going on here," even when the characters themselves may not have known. Allowing the reader to understand just a little more than the characters is one difficult aspect to achieve in the art of writing, and Mawer does this well. Some chapters begin with a feeling of being within a fog, only pieces of what is up ahead come in flashes -- a puzzle with sections that are void, leaving it up to the reader to fill in the yet-to-be-constructed spaces, and then the veil lifts and everything is clear.


Stephanie said...

Thanks for the wonderful book review! I am going to have to get this one from the library... My mother's side of the family is all Czech and I have relatives from there that hid jews in their houses druing WWII from the Germans. I find the storys of peoples lives during these horific times to be fascinating and I am always reminded to be grateful for what I have in my life.

Thanks again :)

Laura said...

Thanks for the review - sounds like it is worth a read! I've always liked history and historic novels, so this books sounds good to me!

Callie said...

I wish I had more of an interest in reading, Hard for me to get started, I always get to the 5th chapter and give up, no matter what. Sounds good, though! said...

Best wishes for 2010 !

photogchic said...

Always looking for good books...I will keep an eye out for that one. Right now reading "Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman" I love Jon Krakauer's book...such a great story teller.