‘The Glass Room’ by Simon Mawer

9780349139005-uk-300“I will design you a life. Not a mere house to live in, but a whole way of life.” So states modernist German architect Rainer von Abt to the recently married Landauers, a wealthy couple living in the recently independent Czechoslovakia.

The minimalist Landauer house of glass and concrete causes a sensation in the tessellated, crenellated decorative tastes of the former Habsburg Empire. And for ten years, Viktor and Liesel enjoy von Abt’s promise: scintillating conversation along with the attention and company of artists, writers, musicians (both Czech and German). With its lack of ornamental detraction, Abt’s vision provides the growing family with an uninterrupted view to the world beyond. But, with rise of Nazism and fascism across Europe, it’s not a view Viktor welcomes.

Seeing the writing on the wall and ignoring the ‘it’ll soon blow over’ opinions around him, Viktor, as a Jew, transfers the bulk of his wealth and flees (with his family) firstly to neutral Switzerland before heading to the States via Cuba. He is one of the lucky ones.

But Simon Mawer’s novel is, ultimately, not the story of the Landauer family nor is it a telling of the Holocaust. The star of this particular tale is the building itself, a building sitting imperiously on a (large) suburban block with views over the unnamed Město (Czech for ‘town’) and its medieval castle.

As the Landauers depart, so German research scientists move in: post war under the Communist regime it’s a children physiotherapy gymnasium until, finally, it becomes a museum. Turning full circle, an ageing Liesel Landor (with an Americanised surname) returns, in 1968, to attend the official launch. The house is much changed having been damaged during the war along with general neglect. But Liesl, in spite of her blindness, knows every inch of her former beloved home.

In 1929, Fritz and Greta Tugendhat commissioned renowned German modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to design and build them a home in the wealthy neighbourhood of Černá Pole in Brno in then Czechoslovakia. Today, it is regarded as one of the pioneering prototypes of modern European architecture and, after many uses, was repaired and opened as a museum in 2012. It had ceased to be a family home following the departure of the Tugendhats as a result of the Munich Accord in 1938.

Simon Mawer’s fascinating story is a fictional account of a house inspired by the Villa Tugendhat. Characters come and go but Liesel, her best friend Hana and the caretaker, Lanik, remain constant. It is they who hold the human narrative of the house through the 60 years of the novel. Yet all the characters interact with and within the house itself – with its oversized plate glass windows, history takes place inside the glass room not outside.

Like its architecture, The Glass Room loses the artifice of the time – Viktor is a proponent of innovation and progress. Yet he struggles with the thoroughly modern Hana and her outspoken sexual frankness and flirtatiousness – as does her wartime lover, Hauptsturmführer Stahl, the head scientist at the Landauer House.

The Glass Room is, in the first instance, the story of an evolving marriage – that of Viktor and Liesel. But it’s also about relationships over the different time zones and events – Liesel and Hana, Viktor and Katalin, Hana and Stahl, Hana and Zdenka, Zdenka and Tomas (the latter two taking place in the Communist-era 1960s). And centre stage is that house, a symbol of the new world post World War 1 but which falls into decay with liberation from German control by the Russian army.

Towards the end, it does become a little ‘safe’ and comfortable – and Mawer’s narrative relies a little too much on coincidence and chance. But these are minor caveats. The Glass Room is a beautifully written novel of considerable power about human frailty and strength.

Shortlisted for the 2009 Booker Prize, The Glass Room had the misfortune of competing against the unstoppable Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

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‘Patti Cake$’

patti_cakesInfectious storytelling as Killa P a.k.a Patti Cake$ is an aspiring rap artist from New Jersey looking to make it big. Only issue is that she’s overweight and white.

Debut feature film writer/director Geremy Jasper firmly positions Patti Cake$ as a crowd-pleaser  – and with the amazing Danielle MacDonald (Lady Bird, The East) as a convincing rapper, he almost succeeds. But the energy palls in the middle as Patti deals with her alcoholic mother (Bridget Everett – Trainwreck, Sex & the City) and feisty grandmother as the storyline heads into predictability.

Rating: 59%

‘The Lost City of Z’

large_large_ik3ebv7J18fs6cHkmu91oxz7EGtVisually grand, James Gray’s (The Immigrant, Two Lovers) The Lost City of Z is an old-school adventure yarn as British explorer Major Percy Fawcett spends large parts of his life in Amazonia searching for the elusive lost city of Z. He disappeared along with his son in the Brazilian jungles in 1925.

Yet, in spite of a likeable Fawcett portrayal by Charlie Hunnam (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Crimson Peak), the feature is strangely static, with little sense of thrill or suspense. It all becomes a little too episodic with Fawcett travelling between England and South America to spend time with his family, convince the Royal Geographic Society of the value of his expeditions before heading off, once again, into the wilds.

Rating: 58%

 

‘The Glass Canoe’ by David Ireland

3vm2w2y5-1398227068A fair-dinkum 1970s Aussie bloke’s story – an everyman’s tale of life centred round the pub in an Australia already dying when David Ireland wrote this wry, compelling novel. Away from the glamorous beaches of coastal Sydney, it’s the working class western suburbs, pre-gentrification, pre-multiculturalism and by far pre-2000 Olympic Games.

It’s a vernacular tapestry of life in The Southern Cross, with short one-page observations or three page chapters of events and local characters as they come and go as told by our narrator, Meat Man. (It’s a man’s world, remember – size does matter and Meat has earned his monicker).

The Southern Cross is no welcoming drinking hole as the regulars comfortably spend six days a week looking into their beer. “On hot days we jumped fully clothed into our bottomless beer glasses and pushed off from shore without a backward look. Heading for the deep, where it was calm and cool.”

Along with Meat, characters such as Alky Jack, Aussie Bob, Serge, The King and the only woman of significance within the hallowed walls, Sharon the barmaid, populate The Southern Cross. In this territorial world, casual strangers are at best frowned upon, but more usually invited “outside”. Drunken philosophies, pointless arguments, sudden outbursts of extreme violence abound.

Yet, in spite of the violence and the fact there’s an awful lot of deaths (natural and suspicious), there’s also plenty of (laconic) humour on tap. And Ireland never judges his characters – he simply presents them as they are in all their honest rawness and flawed humanity.

It’s a subculture long lost (mostly) within contemporary Australia and few tears are shed for the demise of a brutal, misogynist maledom. Yet Ireland’s vivid characterisation reminds us of something that once was.

The Glass Canoe, David Ireland’s fifth novel, won the 1976 Miles Franklin Award (adding to his 1971 win for The Unknown Industrial Prisoner).

 

‘Namatjira Project’

00001-002A meandering, unfocused documentary, the Namatjira Project explores the legacy of one of the earliest successful Australian aboriginal painters, Albert Namatjira. The first indigenous Australian to be granted citizenship back in the 50s, his extended family has battled to reclaim their heritage since his death in 1959.

The problem for Sera Davies’ film is its failure to determine its main subject. Is it Namatjira himself? His family? The battle to regain copyright? Or is it simply following the theatre production that is Albert’s life (a superb performance by Trevor Jamieson – Rabbit Proof Fence, Bran Nue Dae)? The result is a frustrating mishmash of unresolved questions.

Rating: 53%

‘Ali’s Wedding’

19983521_1884953185091404_3701407671146097916_oVoted as The Age newspaper’s best Australian film at the recent Melbourne International Film Festival, Ali’s Wedding is a dire rom-com that, based on true events, mistakenly plays everything for laughs.

The son of a popular cleric at the local mosque, Ali (Osamah Sami, writer of the film) lies his way through his exam results, inflating his score to the point he needs to study medicine at the prestigious University of Melbourne. A non-enrolled attendee at lectures, he falls in love with the Australian-Lebanese Dianne (Helana Siwares – Banana Boy), even though he, as an Iraqi, is due to marry to Yomna. How is he going to get out of this?

Squirm inducing humour that encourages laughter at points of difference, lack of character development that results in seeming stupidity (Ali’s mother in particular) and the occasional comedic moments that are poorly or overly developed in an (ill-conceived) attempt to maximise the humour: Ali’s Wedding is very disappointing.

Rating: 36%

‘God’s Own Country’

Gods-Own-Country_OIC-Poster_webDescribed by many as a British Brokeback Mountain – and it’s hard to disagree.

Lonely farmer Josh O’Connor (Florence Foster Jenkins, The Program) relies on binge drinking in the local pub and casual sexual encounters as he labours on the family farm. His world changes when Romanian Alec Secareanu (Chosen, Love Bus) arrives as casual labour.

As remote as the stunning Yorkshire landscape, debut feature film director Francis Lee’s naturalistic treatment of farm life (including the ewe birthing season) and gay sexuality has resulted in a poignant, finely crafted, nuanced narrative with captivating performances from the two leads.

Rating: 80%

‘Salt Creek’ by Lucy Treloar

salt creekLucy Treloar’s debut novel is something of a grower. What starts out seemingly as another Australian novel dealing with European settlement in the mid 1800s and the impact it has on the indigenous population becomes something more – much more.

As seen through the eyes of Hester Finch, a privileged 15 year-old at the onset of Salt Creek, we experience the fall from grace of the Finch family due to her father’s overbearing pride and poor business acumen. After another failed enterprise, rather than accept the support of his wife’s parents, he forces the family to leave their comfortable Adelaide existence and head to the beautiful yet harsh coastal landscape of the remote Coroong, a few days ride to the south.

Just opened up to graziers willing to try their luck, the inhospitable region offers opportunities. But driven by Finch’s inexperienced attempts to tame the land and spread Christian values, so he brings hardship, disease and death not only to his own family, but also the displaced Ngarrindjeri.

Leaving Adelaide society behind is not easy for Hester, her younger sister Addie (Adelaide) or the girls’ mother, “the journey to that place was like moving knowingly, dutifully, towards death.” And the rough hewn home among the sand dunes where “there was no porch at the front, only dirt and crushed grass about the house, growing longer against the walls where feet had not trod” has left them devastated, bringing home to them “just how far we had fallen.”

The Finch sons (Stanton and Hugh in particular) see adventure and triumph in ownership of the land. They care nothing for history and the indigenous community who they believe has no rights of access to the water holes, coastal fishing spots or land upon which they seasonally camp. They care nothing for their father’s colonialist Quakerism in wanting to civilise the “local savages”: the introduction of Tull from the Ngarrindjeri into the household as a “project” instils nothing but suspicion.

Over time and watching her ailing mother, Hester places the blame of the family demise firmly with her father. Not that her opinion counts for much – even though her parents support education for both their sons and daughters, Hester’s duty is determined by her gender.

But in the first instance, she knows the need to support their father. Success in the venture would mean a quicker return to the city and conversation. But, unlike most works of fiction exploring settlement, rather than successes in the face of adversity, Salt Creek offers struggling adaptation and failure instead.

Death and discord within the family changes the dynamics. Outside of polite society, perception of duty shifts. Penury brings with it altered expectations and hopes. And then there’s the evolving relationship between Addie and Tull.

The family’s isolation results in the introduction of few other characters – the recently widowed Mrs Robinson, owner of the Traveller’s Inn a half day’s ride away (Irish and a history of working in service means the Finch womenfolk only call upon her once): Mr Bagshot and his son, Charles, travelling through in the mapping of the area: the occasional constable. Few of the Ngarrindjeri themselves cross paths with the family.

It is the relationship between these few characters that is at the heart of Lucy Treloar’s superb novel. As much a story of family, duty, love and tragedy as commentary on European settlement, Salt Creek questions perceptions and assumptions of the time.

The destruction of indigenous culture by the family percolates throughout yet Salt Creek is as much about European Christian hypocrisy and the position of women in 19th century with its limited choices determined by men. Hester is driven to leave her durance behind at all costs: Addie eventually succumbs to social expectation. Masculinity itself is also touched upon – from the strutting Stanton through to the much gentler third brother, Fred: from the romantic Charles Bagshot to the bible-reading father: from the so-called uncivilised Tull to the inn owner, Mr Martin.

Intertwining the characters and events that befall them with real historical events, Lucy Treloar has produced something of a classic novel of early Australian European history. Shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Award, it lost out to A.S.Patric and Black Rock, White City.

 

 

‘Maudie’

maudie_xlgCanadian folk artist Maud Lewis is centre stage of director Aisling Walsh’s (Song for a Raggy Boy) heartfelt biopic.

Sufferer of rheumatoid arthritis from a young age, orphaned in her teenage years, living in penury, little changes after her (late) marriage to Everett. Misfits in their Nova Scotia community, living in a one-room hut on the edge of town, Maudie becomes a success as an artist.

Essentially a two hander, with Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine, Happy Go Lucky) in fine form, ably supported by Ethan Hawke (Training Day, Boyhood), Maudie is something of a mixed-bag – a fine character study with superb performances but which loses its way in uncertainty as to which story to tell.

Rating: 68%

‘The King’s Choice’

987069A riveting historical drama as the King of Norway must decide whether to sign the accord with Hitler and the invading German army – or risk war and civilian deaths.

The burden of responsibility is carried by King Haakon VII (superbly played by Jesper Christensen – Casino Royale, Melancholia) over three eventful days as the Germans search for the King in the snowy countryside north of Oslo. The fate of his country and family hang in the balance as Haakon confronts his moral dilemma.

Measured yet immersive, director Erik Poppe (1,000 Times Goodnight, Troubled Water) avoids overtly emotional scenes or cliches, looking instead to reasoned arguments and discussions to determine the final choice for the king.

Rating: 82%