In the late 1920s, a pair of forward-looking honeymooners meet a modernist German architect and ask him to design them a house in their native Czechoslovakia. They want nothing ornate or traditional, nothing that clings to the past, and Rainer von Abt fulfills their dreams brilliantly.
The house he creates is bold and unique, with an onyx wall, a travertine floor, and an audacious living room made almost entirely of glass. Transparent it may be, but the Glass Room harbours secrets, even before the couple's children are born.
In their lovely house, Viktor and Liesel entertain artists, musicians, intellectual and political friends "while outside the storm gathers." In spite of the transparency of the house, they continue to harbour secrets from each other.
With the rise of Nazism, pressure on the couple builds from outside the glass walls as well as within them. Viktor is a Jew, and so is Oskar, the husband of Liesel's best friend Hana. Oskar and Hana stay but Viktor is determined to leave the country. Transferring the ownership of his factories to his non-Jewish father-in-law, Viktor prepares to move his family to Switzerland, "an island in the midst of disaster."
Before they get away, however, refugees arrive from Vienna, and Viktor feels compelled to act, even though Liesel considers the refugees a problem for "'governments not individuals.'"
When actual refugees arrive at the glass house, the couple come face to face with a secret revealed and the resulting dilemma.
After the glass house is abandoned to a caretaker and then taken over during the German occupation, Hana undergoes a bizarre ritual in the former home of her friends, in the name of Nazi "science."
The opening scene of this fascinating novel by Simon Mawer is also the return to the glass house, after history has bulldozed the individuals in its path. Viktor and Liesel have raised their children in America after a escaping from Europe on a train with a "cargo of secrets and lies, and silences."
Hana and her husband have endured different but terrible fates. A Nazi scientist who has tried to drown himself in his work despairs because he believes his love has been "murdered by circumstance."
This chilling story brings the reader face to face with the chaos and madness of the Nazi preoccupations and occupations of Europe before and during World War II.
On the other hand, a redemptive aspect also portrays the characters as they rise above their personal suffering to a kind of nobility in the face of the inhumanity of war and Nazism.
The novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2009.