Archive for the ‘Mawer, Simon (2)’ Category

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, by Simon Mawer

July 2, 2012

Purchased at

Simon Mawer is one of those mid-list UK authors who manages to escape my attention and then, suddenly, arrives with a bang. The Glass Room (2009) was his 10th book but KfC’s first and it struck a very responsive chord. The central “character” is a stunning home, the Mies van der Rohe-designed Villa Tugendhat in the Czech Republic, and is used by the author as a setting to explore the continually-evolving political tensions of the 20th century in that particular area of Europe: a fledgling post-Empire nation, overtaken by Nazi invasion, replaced by Soviet domination, and finally struggling into the post-Soviet future.

Mawer had a reputation as a readable plot-driven novelist, but I was not the only one who thought The Glass Room represented a major step forward for the author. The novel made the Booker shortlist and was the favorite of many who read it — alas, when it came to the final selection, The Glass Room had no chance against the overwhelming favorite, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, but it remains one of my favorite reads since starting this blog.

So 2012 offered some promise for me: Mantel has published a second Cromwell volume, Bring Up The Bodies (to be reviewed here soon, I promise), and Mawer is back on the bookstore shelves with this entry.

Like The Glass Room, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky returns to WWII Europe, but it is more tightly contained than the previous novel. The story this time centres on the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), one of those shadowy agencies that sent covert operators into France between May 1941 and September 1944 to support the Resistance Forces. Mawer slices the story even further: 39 of the SOE operatives were women and his central character, Marian Sutro, is one of them.

The author introduces her to the reader in a prologue-like chapter (titled “Trapeze”) on her way to her mission in France:

She’s sitting the fuselage, trussed like a piece of baggage, battered by noise. Half an hour earlier they manhandled her up through the door because she was too encumbered with her parachute to climb the ladder unassisted; now she is just there, with the sound drumming on her ears, and the inadequate light and the hard metal and packages all around her.

Marian is one of those characters who will be familiar to any reader who has come across fiction concerning links between the UK and the French Resistance. She’s a Brit, but her background is continental — her father was a diplomat involved with the League of Nations so she has spent substantial time as a youth in both Switzerland and Paris. One of the products of that is fluency in French, which has drawn the attention of the British spymasters.

She is already in the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) when she receives the summons to come to London for an interview with one Potter, “an undistinguished-looking man, the kind that her father called a bank-manager type”:

His letter had asked her not to come in uniform. She’d thought that strange at the time, even slightly peculiar. Why not in uniform, when the whole damn world was in uniform? So she’d chosen something plain and businesslike — a navy skirt and jacket with a white blouse, and the only decent pair of shoes she had managed to bring from Geneva. She’d tried to avoid using them too much in the last couple of years. They were too precious. And silk stockings, she wore silk stockings. Her last pair.

That reference to her experience with pre-war French style will become even more important as the novel unfolds. Once Marian has been accepted and heads into intensive rounds of training to serve as a “courier” for a Resistance cell in rural southwest France, it becomes apparent that the authorities’ real interest in her is quite something else. Her youthful experience in France meant she had an acquaintance (a budding love affair actually) with Clement Pelletier, a French nuclear phsyicist who is still working in Paris.

Marian’s brother, Ned, is also a physicist. As the war unfolds, both sides are working on developing the atomic bomb and the uncertain state on the continent has involved substantial relocation of the scientists who are working on the cutting edge of the new prospect of splitting the atom. The Brits very much want Pelletier’s expertise and they need an agent to persuade him to flee from Paris to England.

The extensive training that Marian receives in how to operate undercover introduces her to a cast of characters who are also headed to France and who will become part of the plot as it unfolds. She is both smart and adept, but obviously somewhat out of her depth when it comes to the “real” mission that is seen for her — serving as a courier to a rural resistance unit is relatively easy work, but recruiting a world-class physicist, even given the love interest of a decade before, ups the stakes.

The biggest problem with The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is that we have seen this book before — as just one example, Sebastian Faulks’ Charlotte Gray is based on a remarkably similar set of premises (right down to the female Special Operations Executive female recruit with a love interest in France). And, to jump to the conclusion, Faulks succeeds in carrying it off better than Mawer does.

Mawer is a more than competent stylist, but there is a curious flatness to this novel. As Marian heads through training, assignment, arrival in France, early tasks and finally heading to Paris, there are few surprises — even the relationships that she develops seem to be devoted more to serving the plot than to establishing depth in the book. Authors who are accomplished in the spy/foreign operative genre (John le Carre comes to mind) find a way to introduce plausible, if unlikely, surprises to refresh reader interest. And the books that best succeed build interesting, complex characters who move the well-known plot into the background (think Foyle from the television series Foyle’s War, if I can be allowed a non-literary comparison). Mawer, unfortunately, simply lets the story unfold on entirely predictable lines, with a tidy conclusion to wrap it all up at the end.

Perhaps I was guilty of approaching the novel with too high expectations, but it does not live up to The Glass Room or to the comparable works from authors like le Carre or Faulks. Readable and entertaining, but not a book that will often come to mind a few months down the road I fear.


The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer

May 11, 2009

The spectacular residence pictured above is the Villa Tugendhat in Brno in the Czech Republic. Designed by Mies van der Rohe, built in 1930 and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, it now adds to its distinction by being the central character in Simon Mawer’s new novel, The Glass Room. I’m not spoiling the book by including the picture — Mawer says in an Author’s Note preceding the novel that while it is “a work of fiction, the house and its setting are not fictional.” He doesn’t actually name the Villa, but drawings of various elevations precede each chapter and it took no time to figure out what the “real” house is. For more pictures and description (and they are useful to a reader), here’s a link to the Villa Tugendhat website.

glass-room-3The Glass Room is the latest, for me, of 2009’s “widescreen” novels, a very useful concept coined by John Self at the Asylum: “…ambitious works containing a large cast of characters, far flung geographical settings, and modern history or political issues rendered in fiction.” There is one crucial difference with this work however. As the title indicates, the geographical setting is constant — the charcters and their part in history are what is far flung.

Victor Landauer is owner and director of an assortment of Czech manufacturing enterprises, the biggest of which makes automobiles. It is 1929, he has just married Liesel and they are honeymooning in Venice. Liesel’s parents have given the couple a spectacular piece of land overlooking the town of Mĕsto on which to build a home. The First Republic of Czechoslovakia, carved from defeated empires after the Great War, is still young, but a nation of hope — the young, rich couple and their modern tastes are a reflection of that.

While in Venice, they meet Modernist architect Rainer Von Abt and are quickly introduced to his mantra: “Ornamentation is crime” (a slight adaptation of Adolf Loos’ famous essay Ornament and Crime). He begins sketching concepts and Victor and Leisel are soon on their way to building one of Europe’s most interesting modern houses. Von Abt, like most Modernists, believes that structure should be used to “create” space, not “enclose” it. That’s why two walls of the glass room are floor-to-ceiling glass and two of the very large planes can be lowered into the basement to extend the room into the outdoor slope over the village. An interior onyx wall, which is what gives the real building away as the Villa Tugendaht, captures and creates an interior “sun” at certain times of the year and day. That process of creating space — and the story of the house that results — is one of the strongest themes of the book.

Ornamentation may be crime, but as anyone who has visited a Modernist building or home can testify, the alternative has some downsides of its own — I’d characterize it as a formal, almost chilly, austerity that makes these buildings wonderful to visit, but not terribly attractive to live or work in. Where Mawer is at his best in The Glass Room is when he takes that chilly architectural austerity and transfers it to the human relationship of Victor and Liesel. Having been introduced to two characters who are interesting and likable, once their son and daughter are born, we watch their relationship develop the same kind of non-ornamented formality that their home possesses.

That kind of austerity cannot be sustained for 400 pages and the author moves onto much trickier ground when he begins to develop the warmer human relationships that are required to produce the tension that is essential to the novel. In Victor’s case, it is a relationship that starts out with a part-time tart, Kata, in Vienna, and turns into an obsessive kind of love. For Liesel, it is her continuing friendship with Hana, a very modern, bisexual, gossipy character, who would like to have a lesbian relationship with her, but friendship is also just fine.

For me, those two relationships at first seemed forced, sentimental and verging on the melodramatic. Having loved the opening portions of the book centred on the Modernist house, it was threatening to turn into a soap opera.

Mawer saves that by taking a bold risk. While the relationships continue, he returns the house to centre stage — and makes it the focus of unfolding history. Czechoslovakia is one of the first nations to be forced to kneel to the Nazis, Victor (and Hana’s husband, Oscar) are both Jews. While Victor and Liesel do escape, first to Switzerland and eventually the United States, “their” house remains.

During the war, the Germans take it over and make it into a “scientific” laboratory, a biometric centre that “measures” people in a search to validate the Nazi premise that Jews and Slavs are inferior races. A whole new cast of characters (with the exception of Hana) enters the book. When the Germans are defeated, the conquering Soviets first use it as a billet, complete with horses; after the war it becomes a physiotherapy centre for polio victims. Another cast of characters is introduced.

While The Glass Room is a historical novel, it is not a conventional one. Most (such as Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadowsreviewed here) take a cast of characters through a range of geography affected by history. Mawer, on the other hand, chooses a very restricted geographical point, builds an interesting structure there and then explores how history passes by that point. I was reminded frequently while reading this book of Ivo Andric’s Nobel Prize winning The Bridge on the Drina, althought that spectacularly good book extends over centuries rather than the seven decades of this book.

That technique allows Mawer to escape one of the traps of “widescreen” novels — having so many storylines open that the final pages are the literary equivalent of watching someone carefully pack up several suitcases in preparation for a very long holiday. There is another trap that he doesn’t escape — keeping a large cast of characters together often involves inserting some very unlikely coincidences. I was willing to grant the author that licence; others might not be so forgiving.

I will be very interested in how The Glass Room fares in this year’s Man Booker judging. It is Mawer’s eighth novel (and the first I have read) and he was long-listed for Mendel’s Dwarf. On the positive side, his reader-friendly prose style make this book both literary and accessible. On the other hand, I could understand where some of the risks that he takes that I find successful others would find to be serious flaws. We shall see come July.

A final hypothesis. While I know it verges on heresy to say it, some books can be judged by their cover and I suspect this is one of them. I was looking forward to this book from the moment I saw the cover on the internet (it is detail from Roger de La Fresnaye’s The Seated Man, or The Architect) and it met my high expectations. If you don’t like the cover (“I like pictures that look like pictures”), I suspect you would find the book equally unappealing.

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