The Glass Room – Simon Mawer

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 Long listed for the Booker Prize 2009

The Booker long list has rewarded me with another great book that I would never normally have picked up. The Glass Room has an unusual concept, in that the book is based upon a building rather than a person.

Built on a hillside from glass and steel in the 1930s, the building is famous in it’s small Czech town. The book follows the construction of the The Glass Room, followed by the history of it’s occupants over several decades.

I have to admit that the first few chapters would have normally been enough to return this book to the library. I have no real interest in architecture, so the descriptions of the design and construction of the building, although clearly well written and researched, did not hold my attention. Luckily I persevered, and once the Glass Room was complete, the plot concentrated on Viktor and Liesel Landauer, the rich couple who commissioned the building. The dream life in their beautiful new home is short lived as the threat of war looms closer. Viktor is a Jew, so although I don’t want to give anything a way, you can imagine that his life is going to be difficult.

Over the years, the building has many different uses and it was fascinating to see how things changed. This book does concentrate on the war years and so many of the scenes were disturbing.

How do you dismember a body? There are two fundamentally different approaches – that of the surgeon and that of the mad axeman. The one is cool and calculating and progressive, with the application of bone-saw, scalpel and shears. The other is a frenzy of hacking and tearing, with blood everywhere and the taste of iron in the mouth. But whichever way you do it the result is the same – dismemberment.  

The quote actually describes the break up of Czechoslovakia, but I thought it was a good example of the descriptive nature of the book. It is quite depressing in places, so is the sort of thing you should only read when you are in the right mood.

I loved the writing. It flowed beautifully, but also contained many great observations:

Ever since Man came out of the cave he has been building caves around him.

Overall I found this to be an engaing, well plotted book, with great characters and a lovely ending. The originality and quality of the writing mean that I am sure this book will make the Booker short list.




I had not heard of Simon Mawer before, but he has written quite a few books.

Have you read any of them? Which ones do you recommend?

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  1. Dan Holloway says:

    Jacki, thank you so much for bringing this to my attention. I will purchase forthwith. This is a fascinating time, area, and approach. Back in June I had the good fortune to speak at a conference commemorating 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall on the same panel as this remarkable presentation:

    It looked at a house built in Prague in the 1930s, and the various uses to which it was put up to the present day. The paper will be part of the book that comes out of the conference, and I would recmmend it to anyone who is fascinated by the ideas in Simon Mawer’s book.

    1. Jackie says:

      That paper sounds exactly like this book. Thank you for drawing it to my attention. The life of a building is something I have never really thought of before, but it is a great idea for a book. I really hope that you enjoy it as much as I did.

      1. Dan Holloway says:

        It reminds me of the film Red Violin that came out about 10 years ago which told the history of a violin over several hundred years:

        It’s a wonderful way to tell a story. Also sounds like Heimat, but I must confess never to have managed to sit all the way through it!

        1. Jackie says:

          I’ve not heard of that one, but if you couldn’t manage to finish it I think I’ll avoid it!

          1. Dan Holloway says:

            Heimat is a 9 hour long (I think, maybe longer) German saga that was the darling of the Indie film circuit back when I was a student.

            Red Violin, on the other hand, is regular length – and an absolute masterpiece

            I could only find one copy of the book in Oxford this lunchtime – the spine was just too stiff for the bath though, so I will have to wait for paperback

          2. Jackie says:

            Oh – I understand now! I’ll keep an eye out for The Red Violin. Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. Claire says:

    I am looking forward to reading this one, although I had actually forgotten it was on the pile. At least I’m not fussed for finishing before the shortlist (the lack of availability of the ‘tomes’ on the list from the library prevented that from the beginning).

    1. Jackie says:

      I’m sure you’ll enjoy this one.

      Apart from the ‘tomes’ I think all the Booker list are now available from my library. I’m pleased I bought them before the rush.

  3. Sandy says:

    I do love architecture, so I’m thinking if you gave it four stars, I would definitely like it! Of course, I’ve dug myself into a hole with the books I need to read over the next month or two, so it may have to wait until later in the year. I love the cover too!

    1. Jackie says:

      If you love architecture then that combined with your WWII passion will make this the perfect book for you. I don’t think it is out in America yet, so you probably need to wait a bit anyway.

  4. Verity says:

    mmm…that sounds interesting and not one I’ve heard anything about at all, so thanks for reviewing!

    1. Jackie says:

      My pleasure!

  5. Steph says:

    This ones sounds really good – love the excerpts you included! On the basis of the cover alone I would be inclined to want to try this! ;)

    1. Jackie says:

      I’m afraid that cover would put me off reading it – it looks too arty for me! It is great to discover an amazing story beneath the art.

  6. Beth F says:

    I love architecture and my husband (designer/builder) would probably like this one too. Thanks.

    1. Jackie says:

      I wish I could find a book I could enjoy with my husband – we both have very different tastes. I hope you both enjoy it if you do decide to get a copy.

  7. Swati says:

    This is probably a silly question, but is this book based on a real building that actually exists, or is it completely fictional

    1. Jackie says:

      Not silly at all! The book is based on a real building, but I think most of the characters are fictional.

  8. kimbofo says:

    This is the one I most want to read from the longlist, I think. I love architecture (I studied landscape architecture in my undergrad degree) and the history of buildings fascinates me. I once researched all the people who had lived/owned my grandmother’s house in Oz, and it was amazing to see the types of people (occupations / nationalities) of those who had purchased it and how long they had held onto the house before selling it on. The house was very young by European standards (it was built in the 1850s), but it was still a fascinating exercise.

    By the way, doesn’t the chap in The Wilderness build a glass house. He was an architect too.

    1. Jackie says:

      Yes, the man in the Wilderness is an architect too. It is strange that two great books both feature it. I think you’d love this book. It is amazing even though I have no interest in architecture, so this may be your favourite book of the year.

  9. Rebecca Reid says:

    I’m on an architecture kick, so I like it already!

    1. Jackie says:

      This book is very well written, so anyone who enjoys reading about architecture will adore it. I hope you find time to fit it in.

  10. John Self says:

    I’m keen to read this one too, ever since I read blogger KevinfromCanada’s praise of it some months ago. In the end I only picked up a copy yesterday, but I agree that based on the universal praise the book has had, it seems a good bet for the Booker shortlist. It may even be the first known example of a book where your views and mine coincide, Jackie! ;-)

    1. Jackie says:

      I’m sure there are a few other books that we both enjoy, but the ones that do really are the cream of the book world – ones that manage to combine a great plot with beautiful writing. It probably deserves to win the Booker prize for that reason alone (unfortunately I don’t think it will, but we can always hope).

  11. Swati says:

    Jackie, all these comments have me very interested. I’m an architect and only last week I wrote on my blog about how few protagonists in fiction are architects, and now there are TWO books on the Booker shortlist with architects as main characters! It’s like a bus…you wait for years then three come along at once ;)
    I’ve already reserved this at the library!

    1. Jackie says:

      The Wilderness doesn’t mention architecture very much, but if you are after a book on buidings then The Glass Room is a must. I hope you enjoy it!

  12. Diane says:

    “The life of a building” This one sounds so different; i must add it to my list. thanks jackie

    1. Jackie says:

      Diane, I am sure you’ll love this one. I look forward to your review.

  13. Teddy says:

    This does sound interesting.

    I read The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić a few years ago. Tha main character was a bridge. it’s about the suffering in history that has been imposed upon the people of Bosnia, starting in the 16th century.

    It was worth while but didn’t spend enough time with the human characters IMO.

    1. Jackie says:

      Teddy, I haven’t heard about that book. This one doesn’t suffer with the same problem. The characters are well developed and the building is just the backdrop for the action – I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

  14. Kristen says:

    I hadn’t paid much attention to Mawer in current years but I did read The Fall many years ago and thought it was pretty amazing. This one sounds very different but interesting nonetheless.

    1. Jackie says:

      Kristen, Sorry – I don’t know how I missed your comment. I’m pleased to hear that The Fall was a good book – I will try to read a copy soon.

  15. Sue K says:

    Now that I know this book made the Booker Prize shortlist I’m even more excited to read it. I don’t believe there’s even a release date yet for the US, but I’m sure it will be in 2010. Great review–in the meantime maybe I’ll try something else by Mawer!

    1. Jackie says:

      Sue, I’m sorry to hear that you have got a long wait for this book. I’d love to know what you think of his other books though, so please let me know what you think of them.


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