Monday, October 22, 2012

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

Generally speaking I don't read books that deal with World War II in any but the most cursory capacities and it's extremely difficult to be cursory about so weighty a topic.  There is quality to be found in the setting and tension a plenty.  It's a personal quark of mine rather than a feeling that it's not possible to tell a good story within the confines of World War II.  In every story of that time there are people living their lives in every walk of life with happiness and drama and then the bad things start to happen that we all already know: war, soldiers, crimes against humanity and always at some point, 'The Nazis are coming!'  

The Spanish Bow by Andromeda Romano-Lax was the last book set at the time of WWII that I read, and it was excellent; it's been at least five years or so since then.  I've no recollection how The Glass Room came to be on my list or what put the author's name on my radar.  I'm profoundly happy I didn't know the first thing about this book when I started reading because missing out of this wouldn't have been like missing so many good books set in the time but truly missing out on something special.  

I'll contradict myself in a moment but for now bear with me.  There is a bit of deceit at the beginning of The Glass Room.  The book isn't about WWII (that truly never is the focus), like all good books it's about people.  Newly weds Viktor and Liesel Landauer, of the very successful Landauer automotive cooperation, set out to build their dream home and trust their vision to Rainer von Abt, an architect or rare inventiveness and contemporary foresight.  Their home is suspended from the ceiling and the crowning jewel of von Abt's architecture to date.  The Glass Room: a large space with three huge wall of glass, an over abundance of natural light, and solid onyx wall in the back is the most prominent feature in the house that sets the standard for new contemporary living.  The effect of the room stuns all who see it, no matter how often they visit the space, and indeed, such is Mawer's writing that the glass room continually has an effect on the reader as well.  The author's ability to describe the mundane, let alone extraordinary, is profound.  He captures the minutia of life in concise vibrant ways as if what is being done is interesting as opposed to commonplace.     

We see Viktor and Liesel, the family they start and the friends they make and how the house plays a role in the lives of so many, and then as the threat of war becomes more and more tangible we slowly come to see that the book, while about people, isn't necessarily about the Landauer's no matter how much we have come like them.  Nor is it about Hana, Liesel's promiscuous best friend and one of the most believably strong female characters I've come across, nor even is it about Nazis.  Big surprise, the book is about the glass room.  People come and go, develop, grow and some pass away, but the only constant in the novel is the house and how it affects people.  

The glass room represents transparency, exposure, and incongruously, sustainability to all who know it.  It isn't so much a mirror rather a place that allows people to be at their most natural state.  Not merely that all is exposed but rather when one is there there is no need to hide or obscure what is real.  Purity and universal contentment are what is most commonly seen when people are in the glass room.    

There is a very blatant sexuality to the book: from Viktor and Liesel, to Viktor and his mistress (and even between the mistress and Liesel), Liesel to Hana, and Hana and everyone…  Writers of whatever literary fiction is can't seem to merely say 'they made love' but have to carry on with the most absurd metaphors and imagery.  Mawer turned me off as a reader a few times (if ever you're writing and find yourself rambling in what you think is beautiful figurative language for genitalia, just stop) but then again, I never would have thought that sex could have been a metaphor for all of the unknown that preceded WWII, or that such a metaphor could be done so well to such a strong affect.  

There was one particular lovely comparison to sex and plums that made me close the book and think for a moment.  (I can be naive at times...)  I love those moments, especially when I figured everything out and made sense of it.  Then the next paragraph it was all spelled out in detail and I felt stupid--robbed--as if my intelligence as a reader were being undermined.    There weren't many, but there were more than one of those moments.  

Eventually, the Nazis do come and it is at that point the book's themes really come to the forefront: contrast, change, adaptability.  It is odd when a little past halfway the Germans come and do all the things Germans of the times did and all the characters we have known go away and yet the story keep going with new characters, popping up by the handful and at every new page, because, again, the book is about the people who inhabit the house and not necessary the Landauners.  The family is more of a starting and ending point than the focus of the story.  

I'm not sure why this one is proving so difficult for me to talk about.  It's a very simple, straightforward story, Mawer's voice and language are beautiful and there is tension on every page.  There really aren't individual moments that I would highlight or parts of prose I would quote that may sway one to read the book, rather the summation is greater than the parts that comprise the novel.  Nonetheless, it's an excellent book that will stay with you long after reading.

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