The well-researched and melodramatic (in a good way) novel is set in and around a modernist villa in the Czech city of Brno. Ccalled the Landauer house in the book, it’s based on the real life Villa Tugendhat.
All of the details about the villa itself are true, but the people who live in it — and the things that happen to them — are fiction, although many of the details around the events of WWII and the Communist regime are based in fact.
It’s the 1920s in Czechoslovakia. Newlyweds Viktor and Liesel Landauer are young, in love, and optimist about the future. One of them is Jewish, and they’re from a privileged background; this will be of dire importance later. As a family wedding gift, they are able to commission modernist architect Rainer von Abt to build them a house like no one has ever seen before. It will be sleek, functional, devoid of the elaborate decorations of the previous century.
When it’s finished, the villa is open and airy, literally a glass house that barely separates the people inside from the world outside; everything is on display. But the glass also acts as a mirror, reflecting them back to themselves. And the foreboding atmosphere — of the coming war, of deceit — ground the novel in mild claustrophobia that neatly contrasts with the transparency and optimism of the house.
The experiences of the residents through the war and the rise of Communism are told through the lens of the house: The villa itself frames the narrative and is central to the characters’ life stories.
This is a beautifully brutal WWII tale that closely examines the various and complicated kinds of love that shape us as humans, as well as betrayal, family, sexuality, power dynamics, fear, and wealth. The ugly events are handled with delicacy, and there are genuine moments of tenderness, too, but the emotional palette is mostly grays with occasional punches of red.
It’s dark and unsettling — how could a WWII story be anything else? — but the writing is so good and the pages turn themselves with suspense.
“Well, it’s too good to last, isn’t it?” says Hana.
“What do you mean, everything?”
“The good times. All this. The world we live in.” — Simon Mawer
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