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House of Glass: A deep draught

There are many books I have enjoyed immensely, yet they leave no lasting trace other than the memory of pleasure, possibly because I was in agreement with the philosophy and viewpoints they contained; they presented no particular challenge. 

Then there are books that insert themselves months afterwards, at odd, idle, or occasionally opportune moments. 

Hadley Freeman’s House of Glass is one of these. It arrived in the post, unasked for, and I read it because it was there. It is unlikely I would ever have pulled it off a shelf unless the only other books to choose from were written by James Hadley Chase or Wilbur Smith (not that I haven’t read the odd Wilbur Smith while on holiday but I would not be able to recall their titles even if they were printed on my shaving mirror).

For a start, House of Glass is the story of a 20th Century Jewish family. Which means WWII, which means The Holocaust. Is it a heresy to say I am tired of reading about the Holocaust? There are six million and more stories to be told of that nadir of recent history, but there is also so much else that begs discovery. Anyway, House of Glass is a thick book, and about much more than the Holocaust, even though those five years of horror cast a shadow across half a century and, judging by the way Israel continues to behave like a terribly abused child whose fear is so internalised he sees no option but to strike and dominate, continues to fall across our years. 

Yet, Hadley notes in her introduction, apparently 41% of Americans don’t know that Nazi’s murdered six million Jews on an industrial scale, and neither, incredibly, do a third of Europeans. At the same time, incidents of anti-Semitism are on the rise. Which gave her the courage to write this book. And I’m glad I got to read it.

House of Glass is not a novel, it is a biography of a family, written by one of its members. A family split across continents by a hatred and cruelty that killed brothers and sisters and parents and cousins and uncles and aunts.

Hadley, a New York fashion journalist, haunted by the French family she met as a young girl, tries to understand her aloof, sad grandmother by documenting the clothes she used to wear. Fine French fashion she wore to mark her as sophisticated and cultured and not American. Like C.S. Lewis’s hidden portal that led from the back of a wardrobe to Narnia, what Hadley finds in a dusty shoebox beneath her late grandmother’s dresses hung in dry-cleaner’s coverings, reveals secrets, loss, dreams, adventures, and extraordinary bravery. Her book is not about the concentration camps – no more than it needs to be – it’s about the people who escaped them. It’s about a woman’s life being ripped away from her just as she was blossoming into Paris after a childhood in Chrzanow, Poland, which is about as cold and grim as it sounds. It is about a short, bullet-shaped man who invented and re-invented himself; a haute couture designer who fought in the first battles of the war as a Legionnaire and became part of the French resistance, later breaking bread as an art dealer with Picasso. It is about a mild-mannered brother who never believed it was possible such evil could exist in the world and followed instructions as a good citizen, instructions that led him to his extermination.

As fantastic as the events and stories are, they are more so because they are true. It is a book that taught me a little more about Europe, quite a lot more about human nature and family, and gave me a new appreciation for fashion and the importance of art. At the very least, you’ll discover Alex Maguy.

Being non-fiction, it is not a devour-in-one-sitting book. Rather, it is like a meal lovingly prepared, which you savour as you participate in conversation, later picking at the tasty left-overs in the pots every time you go to the kitchen.