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House of Glass Reviews

House of Glass by Hadley Freeman

House of Glass

The story and secrets of a twentieth-century Jewish family

Hadley Freeman

4.60 out of 5

13 reviews

Imprint: Fourth Estate Ltd
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 24 Feb 2020
ISBN: 9780008322632

'An utterly engrossing book' Nigella Lawson 'Remarkable and gripping' Edmund de Waal. A moving memoir following the Glass siblings throughout the course of the twentieth-century as they each make their own bid for survival, House of Glass explores assimilation, identity and home - issues that are deeply relevant today.

  • The GuardianBook of the Day
5 stars out of 5
Philippe Sands
29 Feb 2020

"this finely honed and engaging account draws the threads between then and now"

Freeman traces the lives of the four siblings with elegance and humanity. She confronts the mysteries of life that cause four individuals with a similar beginning to reach very different endpoints. Is it will, or fate, or chance, or something else? Such questions flow below the surface of the narrative. Occasionally they reach out with brutal force: could it be that death in an extermination camp is the price you pay for being decent and playing by the rules?

Reviews

4 stars out of 5
12 Jun 2020

"The past is unknowable in this memoir of a family splintered by the Holocaust"

This richly researched and beautifully written book has its share of revelatory moments. Old photographs are unearthed from the recesses of closets. But there is an enduring wisdom, too: we are all trapped by circumstances — sometimes extraordinary ones. Within those bounds, our lives play out based on character and chance.

5 stars out of 5
30 Apr 2020

"Freeman does not shy away"

The book resonates not only for all of us in the Jewish diaspora, estranged and distanced from our larger families by our long history of persecution, but for those separated from their loved ones by intolerant and repressive regimes. It’s also a timely warning from history, drawing a line from the anti-Semitism of the late 19th century to the cultural and religious intolerance increasingly expressed today. Freeman reveals the complexity of how culpability for the Holocaust stretched beyond Nazi Germany’s borders to all countries with anti-Semitic legislation that prevented immigration and integration. This is a deeply moving book, part history, part detective story, part memoir, peopled by colourful and memorable characters that breathe beyond the confines of its pages, their lives stitched into the era in which they lived, while their spirits reach far beyond it.

4 stars out of 5
28 Mar 2020

"Freeman unfolds her family’s story with sharp intakes of breath as personal outcomes defy both logic and official narratives"

Fascinated as I am by that place and those times, I am not sure what larger purpose is served by the present vogue for reliving the Occupation through the letters and memoirs of the lucky survivors. Freeman is right to point out that Alex’s life hung on the whim of a sentimental military man. My uncle René said that survival was a matter of luck. When I pressed him on his refusal to tell me more, he gave the most Gallic of shrugs: ‘There is nothing to be learned from it.’

5 stars out of 5
14 Mar 2020

"This history of a glamorous family in exile in the 20th century is a masterpiece"

I think about the Glaases constantly now: particularly Henri, who died with an English dictionary near him, so he could know the great-niece who, when she could bear the looking, wrote his story. Freeman did look straight into the sun, and I can only guess what it cost her. I don’t hesitate to call it a masterpiece. 

4 stars out of 5
James Marriott
10 Mar 2020

"It should be read by anybody who believes history is an abstraction"

House of Glass is pacily told — in fact, it’s probably the only recent biography I’ve found myself wishing was a bit more self-indulgent. I would have loved a more colourful picture of Jewish bohemian life in Paris, for example. But Freeman provides a moving and frightening picture of the ways ordinary fates are mangled by the machinery of politics, war and hate. It should be read by anybody who believes history is an abstraction. It is not: as WH Auden knew, we “all sway forward on the dangerous flood/ Of history, that never sleeps or dies,/ And, held one moment, burns the hand.”

5 stars out of 5
Victoria Segal
1 Mar 2020

"House of Glass opens the door on to the past, and its light spills sharply across the present"

“Haunting” is an insufficient description of House of Glass. It lingers, chilling the room when you think about cousin Rose scrawling a final goodbye to Sara on a postcard as guards boarded the bus she had hoped would take her to Switzerland, or Jacques, on a train to Auschwitz, realising his trust in France was misplaced. Yet it’s not a book of ghosts; these people exist in high definition, Freeman catching their foibles, feuds, physical quirks and flashes of heroism. Researched with diligence and written with love, it triggers the same shock of recognition that comes from colourised film; black-and-white history flooded with bright detail, human warmth.

5 stars out of 5
1 Mar 2020

"Freeman is a meticulous, dogged researcher, deftly pulling the strands of these many stories into a narrative"

With his attacks on Muslims, Donald Trump, Freeman notes, comes from a long line of ‘white men who have set out to make America racist again’. Chrzanów, now in Poland, is a place ‘from which something’s been sucked out’: there are just a handful of Jews in a place where there was once a flourishing Jewish population, and not one of its twenty former synagogues remains. In France, anti-Semitic acts rose by 74 per cent between 2017 and 2018 alone. These facts are well known, as is the history that underpins Freeman’s story; what makes her book so affecting is the weaving of them together. This intelligent and lively book could not be more timely.

4 stars out of 5
28 Feb 2020

"What is most distinctive here, however, is the author’s tone"

There is sadness here and righteous anger, but, crucially, Freeman eschews the air of melancholy and fatalism that is so often a feature of depictions of the Jewish beau monde. In her account, the stunning dresses and friendships with men like Picasso were as much fun in the 1920s and the 50s as life can be today in How To Be Awesome. She thus avoids one of the clichés of Jewish family history and, in the process, throws light on the success of the Jewish diaspora, both before and after the Second World War. In the end, House of Glass is still a feature on her grandmother’s wardrobe, and it is none the worse for that.

4 stars out of 5
Alex Peake-Tomkinson
27 Feb 2020

"A compelling story of Holocaust survival"

Freeman has said it took her 18 years to research this book and it is an enormous undertaking, freighted with trauma. It is written in a different register from her whip-smart journalism and indeed her previous books. She is loving but sceptical towards her family, managing to break down the self-mythologising of her great-uncle Alex while also exploring the dangers inherent in the stereotype of Jewish passivity. While at times heart-breaking, this is nonetheless not a bleak book. As her great-uncle Alex wrote, “life is worth the trouble of fighting death”, and Freeman’s spirited memoir is a powerful endorsement of this view.

4 stars out of 5
Lucy Hughes-Hallett
26 Feb 2020

"these stories add up to a nuanced and compelling picture of life in the diaspora"

Freeman has laid aside the caustic humour of her newspaper columns to write soberly, but with a nice balance of sympathy and exasperation, about her relatives – honouring courage, lamenting obstinacy, folly and spite. (Adversity, she demonstrates, does not make families kinder.) She is best when focusing on the particular. When Henri and his wife were surviving under assumed identities in occupied Paris, their neighbours – shockingly – repeatedly pinned letters to their former front door denouncing them as Jews and revealing their new address.

4 stars out of 5
Lisa Appignanesi
25 Feb 2020

"...the story Freeman tells is above all a tribute to human bravery and endurance against the odds"

Freeman is a determined and eloquent detective. She sifts records, has translations of documents done and travels often with her father to the sites of ancestral life. Above all, she is a splendid creator of character. As she roots around in a past that moves from persecution and the extreme poverty of a Jewish family in the southwestern corner of Poland, to interwar immigrant life in the then unglamorous Marais district of Paris, to the turbulence and death of the war years and beyond, the members of her great and grandparental family take on memorable individuality. What is fascinating to note is that it is some of the forebears she likes least who emerge as distinct heroes... Like its title, House of Glass signals the precariousness of the condition both Jews and immigrants suffer into our own time. Yet the story Freeman tells is above all a tribute to human bravery and endurance against the odds. Death may be hideously inventive, but so too is the human spirit

  • The BooksellerBook of the Month
5 stars out of 5
Caroline Sanderson
6 Dec 2019

"From the moment I began it, I could not put this superb book down"

Anyone who persists in the notion that non-fiction can't be as page-turning as fiction should read this utterly marvellous work of family history. Eighteen years in the researching and writing, it was sparked when Guardian columnist Freeman found a shoebox at the back of her late grandmother Sala's wardrobe, containing her most treasured belongings. In a bid to understand the significance of its contents, Freeman began to delve into the lives of Sala and her brothers, Henri, Jacques and Alex Glass. Born into a Jewish family in Poland in the early years of the 20th century, they fled the violent pogroms that followed the First World War and settled in Paris; only to be pitched into a fresh nightmare after the Nazis invaded France in 1940. The heroic trajectories of the four siblings from that time onwards, across Europe and the US, make astonishing, incredibly moving reading. From the moment I began it, I could not put this superb book down; it's a triumph of research, of accomplished and pacy writing, and of thoughtful analysis of what it means to be Jewish today. It's also impossible to read it without shuddering at some of the echoes of the past we hear in extremist politics today. House of Glass is the kind of book you'll gladly stay put a whole weekend for... that is exactly what I did.