I finished Mawer's The Glass Room last week before the paper torrent of Christmas began, and it's taken me this long to get to a point where I felt that I had something substantive to stay. This book is tremendous and has stuck in my mind, teasing me with different interpretations and meanings, since I closed the last page.
Set before, during, and after World War II, The Glass Room is a story of a family and their beautiful modern house. It is also the story of love lost, love found, horrible circumstances, close-mindedness and the desire to live life as one chooses. At the center of this tale are the Landauers, a wealthy and visionary couple who attempt to create a new, fresh future through the creation of a modern house. They meet their architect on their honeymoon and the ideas architect Von Abt has about architecture – the structure of space, the purpose of buildings – correspond to the Landauers world view. When the house is built, the focal point quickly becomes the glass room, a giant open space enclosed on the front by large plates of glass. They can see the city below them, but the glass room is a completely separate area, a space that speaks directly to the spirit and the best of humankind. Not everyone understands the glass room or are able to appreciate it, but when the fading rays of daylight light up the onyx wall and the room seems on fire, the glass room becomes full of possibility, full of a beauty that cannot be denied.
When Europe falls apart during WWII, the Landauers are forced to leave and the house is passed from owner to owner, as the Nazis and then the Soviets struggle with what to do with such an unconventional building. This modern house is a promise for a future that will never come, as WWII makes clear, and to be in its presence is to come face to face with the disillusionment of pre-war dreams.
Revolving around the glass room are the stories of the Landauers, their friends, and the people who inhabit the house after the Landauers leave. Though the characters are absorbing and vibrant in their lives and loves, the main character is the glass room itself, as it acts as a mirror, oracle, and reminder of disappointment to the various people who come into contact with it.
Shortlisted for the 2009 Mann Booker Prize, this is not a book to be missed. Mawer’s subtle characterization and brilliant evocation of a changing world makes this a must read.