One of the perennial questions writers tend to rehash is whether or not to create an outline before starting to write. Many writers proudly announce that they have no idea where their stories are going when they begin; they follow where the story takes them and claim that this technique gives their work spontaneity and emotional depth. Other writers create quite detailed outlines and then proceed to follow them. I recently attended a workshop led by a successful author who mapped out her novels scene by scene and, posting this blueprint over her desk, checked off each scene as she completed it. The advantages she mentioned included a solid structure for the book and the freedom to jump around and work on any scene she felt like. Most writers, including myself, fit somewhere in between. I create an outline but feel free to revamp it as I go along. I stay open to the idea that the story will take off in a direction I hadn’t anticipated.
This book, which I so looked forward to, reads as though the author adhered to his outline too faithfully. It is a beautifully structured book, one of those novels that follows some artifact, like a violin or a manuscript, across the years as it passes from one set of hands to another. In this case, it is a house, a modern house built in Czechoslovakia in the 1920s by newlyweds Liesl and Viktor, a Gentile and a Jew. Their house is to have the clean lines and austere palette of the Bauhaus. An abstract house, the architect calls it, a house for the future based on the ideal of reason and the possibility of perfection. A house that does away with all the fustian of the Victorian Age that brought the tragedy of the Great War.
Of course we all know what is coming. That is one of the flaws in the author’s plan. One member of my book club said that she could hardly bear to go on reading knowing what was waiting around the corner. For me, if you’re going to bring Hitler and the Holocaust into your book, you’d better write a darn good story, not only because they’ve been so overdone, but because they seem to me the hallmarks of a lazy writer, coming as they do with their own built-in drama, their guaranteed heartbreak. It can be done—Anne Michaels succeeds brilliantly in Fugitive Pieces —but it is not easy. I think Mawer comes close, but ultimately fails to meet the challenge.
I found it a cold book; some members of my book club agreed while others loved the book. I enjoyed the book on a cerebral level. For example, I appreciated the masterful architecture of the story. As one person pointed out, literary ironies abound: a transparent house that is full of secrets, a woman who blinds herself to what is going on and eventually loses her sight. Part of the problem is the structure. As the house passes to other hands, we lose the people who have started to interest us and are given a whole new set of characters to get to know. Then it happens again. Perhaps that is the author’s intent, that we should not care what happens to the characters and all that Romantic nonsense. But I found myself thinking of Storm Jameson’s memoir that dealt with this period and was so much more moving. The betrayal of Czechoslovakia must count as one of England’s most terrible crimes. Here it is acknowledged but is only another example of passion trumping reason.
Another flaw for me, and this is just personal taste, is that I am so bored with stories by middle-aged men about middle-aged men who are justified in cheating on their wives. With all the passions to choose from, especially during this period of national fervor and lingering grief, it seems odd to go back to the same plot device over and over.
I loved the first scene, when an elderly Liesl returns to the house after decades in the U.S. Almost completely blind, she yet walks unassisted, the house so much a part of her that its spaces and scents do not have to be parsed for her to know where she is. I have a house like that in my past, one that appears in my dreams, that I can walk through step by step, calling up the smell of each room, the sound each window makes, the rough texture of each wall. Now there’s a passion you don’t see very often. It is more than love; it is immersion, and Mawer captures it perfectly. Many scenes in the story are beautifully done and, though the ending falls a bit flat, I am still glad I read the book.