Simon Mawer returns to the historical Czechoslovakian theme of The Glass Room in this novel set in 1968 Prague.
It is seen through the prism of two couples: James and Ellie, two university students hitchhiking randomly through Europe, and diplomat Sam Wareham in the British Embassy and his journalist girlfriend Lenka.
Mawer is well informed on the Russian invasion ending Alexander Dubcek’s ‘Socialism with a human face’and also accomplished in writing a novel that is a page turner. Many well plotted novels that capture the zeitgeist have poor characterisation and dialogue but not here. Many of us recall that time of student hitchhiking.
The young couple here do have a romance of sorts but it’s uneven and Jamie’s feels insecure in it. He is a northern lad studying engineering, the more practical of the two, whilst Ellie – daughter of a QC – is the more radical and headstrong.
Sam Wareham is a young cynical career diplomat estranged from his partner Steffi who falls for the free spirit Lenka who symbolises the more liberal times in the Prague of the Dubcek regime.
Mawer also knows quite a bit about music and musicians. I never knew the Moody Blues were playing a concert in Prague at the time of the invasion. There is also a fictional world famous conductor with his young prodigy violinist, both Russian, who are seeking asylum and throw themselves on the mercy of Sam at the least convenient time.
I will not do a spoiler but he does not wrap up the novel all that well. A epilogue of what happened to the characters might have been interesting too. We only know what happened to one. Most of the relationships remain unresolved.
The evocation of the night the tanks rolled in is particularly well written and the action becomes taut. This is all the more poignant as I remember my late father coming into the kitchen in spring 1968 tears in his eyes with the news that Russian tanks had invaded Prague. At Cambridge in the early 70s I knew radicals from privileged families like Ellie and northern lads like James confused by the rituals of college life.
A friend of mine has a good description for such novels as “between the Booker Prize and the beach”. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would heartily recommend it. There is new genre of contemporary historical writing and writers and Anthony Quinn and Simon Mawer are at the head of it.