Review: The Glass Room

The Glass Room Book Cover

The Glass Room
By Simon Mawer
Other Press LLC
October 2009
416pp

The Short of It:

The Glass Room is a sophisticated, highly stylized work of art.

The Rest of It:

In central Europe during the 1920’s, newlyweds, Viktor and Liesel Landauer meet acclaimed architect, Rainer von Abt. A modernist of his time, he agrees to build the them a house like no other. One designed with sharp angles, wide, open spaces and a room made of glass. Viktor, quite the modernist himself, is taken with the idea. A room made of glass? How exquisite. Liesel on the other hand, must be convinced. A house like this is not meant for a family, is it?

Once complete, the house is a work of art. Cement and steel and of course, the large glass panels that make up the glass room. As von Abt states:

A work of art like this demands that the life lived in it be a work of art as well.

The life lived within it is not a work of art though. Instead, there is a marriage placed crudely under a microscope where the reader is allowed to view all of its intricacies. There is love, much love but there is also rampant infidelity, lesbianism, and matters of race, religion and politics. Mawer places it all before you and then steps back, allowing the reader to be an observer in this experiment.

The writing is clinical, almost sterile yet sensual. Everyone in this novel is stripped bare. The characters, all of them, are complex creatures but we are reminded more than once that they are in fact, creatures and they often behave as animals do. Sometimes this is shocking because as you read, you feel as if you shouldn’t be sharing this intimate space with them. Yet, you cannot walk away.

Don’t be fooled by the Glass Room. It’s only as rational as the people who inhabit it.

Sharp and edgy, I found myself completely absorbed with the story. What makes it even more intriguing is that such a house exists. Villa Tugendhat is located in Brno in the Czech Republic and the inspiration behind The Glass Room. It was designed by Mies van der Rohe between 1928 and 1930. Although the story centers around this house, the rest of the story is a work of fiction.

Photo of Villa Tugendhat

I did not look at any of these photos prior to reading the book, but the house is exactly as I pictured it.

Photo #2 of Villa Tugendhat (interior shot)

With a large part of the novel centering around World War II, it’s no wonder that the words, sterile and antiseptic come to mind but in between the starkness, there is beauty. A lot of other reviewers did not care for the coldness of the characters. I didn’t see them as cold, but somewhat reserved depending on the situation. Formal, is probably a better word.

As formal as they were, the last page brought a tear to my eye. I wasn’t expecting to tear up but emotion overcame me and I found myself re-reading that last page over and over again.

The Glass Room was a finalist for the 2009 Man Booker Prize and is one of my favorites for 2010. I highly recommend it.

Source: This review copy was sent to me by the publisher.

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20 thoughts on “Review: The Glass Room”

  1. You shared my exact thoughts on this book, Ti. I loved it too. And it was interesting…like you I didn’t look at any photos of the real house until after I read the book, and I was amazed at how accurate my picture of the house was just from Mawer’s words. Excellent book.

    1. The owners of Villa Tugandhat must have been ahead of their time because it really was quite modern for that time period. I love the clean lines and panes of glass and the view doesn’t hurt.

  2. This sounds like quite a book. I can see how it might not appeal to some just from the description you give, but I can also see how it could be great. I am glad you enjoyed this one, Ti. The house is amazing.

  3. I love how this house inspired the one in the book. I’ve read a few reviews of this one, and while they have all been really good ones, I’m still not sure about it. Like Jill said, it may be dictated by mood.

    1. The book is structured deftly much like the house at its centre. History is layered in through short, intense episodes in the lives of the characters–Viktor and Leisl; Leisl’s beautiful and tragic friend Hana; Jewish prostitute Kata who Viktor falls in love with; and later Hana’s German lover Werner Stahl who “almost destroys” her. The result is an intensely felt novel, human and moving. The beginning is weak for a novel of such power. It suffices but doesn’t portend the majesty that is to come. One is prepared to be regaled with too much architectural detail and not enough human story. The fact that the novel overturns this expectation soon enough is a welcome surprise. After a rather lengthy description of the inception and building of the house–perhaps intended to drill in the importance of its symbolism–Mawer lets his characters take over. Viktor and Leisl move into the house. Events unfold with precise intent. Emotion is held taut. Characters reveal themselves lightly and gradually through dialogue rather than heavy-handed description. We become watchers at the enormous panes of the glass room, move through its transparencies, and inhabit the world of Mawer’s superbly polished novel.

  4. How cool to see the photos of the real house that inspired the book. It sounds intriguing but perhaps like a difficult read. Lovely review … as always.

  5. Thank you for posting the pictures of the house. . This book has been on my wish list for a while now, but your great review has pushed it closer to the top. I’m going to check the library for a copy today.

  6. This has been on my to-read wishlist for a little while now and your review has given me extra motivation to track it down. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and those photos!

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