The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

It seems strange to read, by chance, two books on the Holocaust so close together.  In the case of both Sarah’s Key and The Glass Room, it was their availability at the library that made them the ‘next choice’ on my reading list.

Yet, it is hard to imagine two books on the same subject being more different.  In Sarah’s Key, the horrors on the Parisien internment of Jews is told through the eyes of an innocent 10 year old.  Overwhelmed and unprepared for the horrors the witnesses and unable to ever escape what she’s experienced.

The Glass Room is a very different book.  On the simplest level, it is the story of a house built in pre-war Czechoslavakia and all the different worlds that pass through in the next 60 years.

However, it is the story of the family that built and lived in it until the war begins that is the most fascinating.  A modern couple with a strong belief in the saving power of modernity.  A couple beyond interest in religion, with only a faith in progress, hire an architect to design a thoroughly modern house for them.  An architectural wonder, it gives the impression of being suspended in light.

That impression is marred by the approaching horrors of World War II.  You watch the events slowly unfolding through the eyes of these very worldly wise people.  Even if they don’t want to admit it to themselves, they sense where things are heading, particularly because Viktor is a Jew.  They have the financial means to pack up and catch a flight out at the last possible moment to an exile in Switzerland.

But far from the innocence of Sarah in Sarah’s Key, these characters have all the complexity of adults.  Their perfect looking home life is marred by betrayals.  In the end, their modern views cannot save them and they have to flee their perfect lives to watch the Germans overtake their country from the comfort of Switzerland.

Of course, there are far more characters than this in the novel.  Each one is well developed.  You don’t always understand the motivation of each of them, but I think that is natural when people are enveloped by such extraordinary circumstances where survival is so uncertain.

I really enjoyed this book.  It was well written and very engrossing.  It didn’t have the black and white quality of Sarah’s Key.  It’s written in only shades of grey (ironic, given it’s reliance on the pure white backdrop of the house).  The failures and compromises of people showing the failure of the modernity that was to save them.

The Glass Room is not for the ‘faint of morals’, but it is a very well written book that raises questions and introduces haunting characters.  It is not the epic tale of horror of Sarah’s Key, but a more subtle unfolding of continuing horrors of war through the eyes of those who slowly absorb the pain.

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