It is easy to see why Simon Mawer's The Glass Room was shortlisted for 2009's Man Booker Prize: the book is gorgeously written, historically significant, and 99% of it is a total downer. Mawer's novel opens in the late 1920s, when a pair of wealthy Czech newlyweds (a Jewish car manufacturer and his gentile wife) decide to build an ultra-modern house—a stunning, glass-walled mansion that becomes a physical embodiment of their hopes for the future. Before long, however, their enviable life begins to disintegrate. Both partners start looking for affection outside of their marriage, and things take an even darker turn as the horrors of World War II grow closer. As the years go by, the house passes from one owner to the next, slipping from Czech to Nazi to Soviet possession, until the novel ends (and on a surprisingly hopeful note!) with it once again in Czech hands.
As far as I can tell, Mr. Mawer is not Czech. I, however, am, and I can vouch for the fact that he got at least one thing totally right: Czech angst really can be this self-consciously arty. I am less competent to judge the historical accuracy of his storyline, but he seems to have borrowed heavily from the real-life account of Tugendhat Villa in Brno, a modernist home built between 1928 and 1930 for a Jewish couple that lost control of the house when they fled Czechoslovakia in 1938. Unfortunately, other elements of The Glass Room are less plausible—the book is filled with meetings and conversations that, no matter how richly dramatic they might be, seriously strain credulity.
But if you don't object to a lot of artistic suffering and a central metaphor (the glass house) that smacks a little too much of English Literature 301, there is much here to admire: Mawer's sophisticated prose is evocative; his characters lifelike—sometimes painfully so. And, it must be noted, The Glass Room was actually one of the less depressing Booker Prize options last year. (The winning novel was a fictionalized account of the life of Thomas Cromwell, who—fun fact!—ended up with his boiled head stuck on a spike atop London Bridge. No doubt a delightful read.) It might not be a rollicking good time, but Mawer's elegantly gloomy family-saga-slash-historical-epic has a lot to offer, even to those of us who generally prefer our fiction to come with a happily-ever-after guarantee.
[Review copy provided by publicity firm.]
Labels: Book Reviews