This is my review of The Glass Room by Simon Mawer.
The quality of the writing justifies the inclusion of this imaginative work in the Man-Booker shortlist,and it would have made a worthy winner. Mawer's skill is wide-ranging: the meticulous description which conjures up striking images of, say, Von Abt's glass house, vividly described from his drawing, which gradually rises from the mud of the hillside; the sharp, witty dialogues; the subtle development of a cast of varied characters in all their complexity, strengths and flaws; the underlying sense of menace and insecurity. The intriguing plot soon caught my interest: from the first few pages, it was clear that the early optimisim and good fortune of the wealthy Landauers was doomed, the year being 1929, the husband being Jewish, and their homeland being the newly formed Czechoslavakia, soon to fall under Soviet control.
Although I have no great liking for modern architecture, this book succeeded in enabling me to appreciate the vision that the glass house represented, and something of what architects working in angular lines and non-traditional materials are trying to achieve. I particularly liked the way in which the appearance of the building changed over time as, rather like its occupants, it was battered by external forces.
My criticisms are minor. The initial prologue, foreshadowing the end, added little, and ran the risk of putting readers off, with its slightly mawkish tone, before there had been time for us to be intrigued by the construction of the unusual house and the inevitably eventful and probably tragic fate of its inhabitants.
Although the complex relationship between Liesl and Katalin was explored quite well, Victor's role in the ménage à trois could have been revealed in more depth.
The hints at lesbianism irritated me slightly, since I wondered whether they had been included for effect, and how well the male writer could really handle them.
The plot deteriorated for me towards the end (Part 4) when most of the original characters had slipped away, and, as other readers have noted, the pace seemed to speed up, presumably to "get to the end" without becoming too long-winded, but at the cost of the satisfying, in depth development of characters and situations which marked the early chapters. Tomas and Zdenka were pale shadows of Victor and Katalin, as lovers and "real people", and I would have liked more of Von Abt.
However, the final denouement works reasonably well, bringing together some of the "original" characters, full circle. Although many "loose ends" are tied, a few questions remain unanswered. What exactly happened to Katalin? This adds to the realism and pathos of the work.
I shall certainly look out for more of Mawer's work and appreciate the view that he ranks amongst our best current writers, and has been underestimated to date.