House of Glass by Hadley Freeman (2020)

Let me preface this review by saying that I have not written a book review, or any blog post, for months now so please bear with me… in June I went back to work after maternity leave, but due to lockdown my little one’s nursery was not open at the time and so my husband and I juggled childcare with working full time from home for about two and a half months, which was interesting to say the least, and so I had basically no time to read or write reviews. Any time I did have, at the end of the day, was spent recovering from that day. Luckily, he has now started nursery, and we can organise our lives a bit better (a bit) and so I am determined not only to read more but also to start writing reviews again, beginning with this incredible book from journalist Hadley Freeman.

I already liked Freeman’s writing in The Guardian and such, so I was very intrigued to hear she had written a family memoir. I adore family memoirs as a rule, and basically anything to do with the Second World War is a winner for me, especially books that explore that personal side. I’m always drawn to family history, those questions of inheritance and legacy, how our family affects us even with years and years in between, even family members we didn’t know that well or we weren’t close to. I’m also always drawn to the issue of secrets within a family, in one form or another, because it drives me completely insane when older generations just don’t talk about things and then their descendants don’t understand what this or that means, or why they behaved that way… but of course in Freeman’s case, as in many others, there were good reasons why some things were not discussed. By ‘good reasons’ I suppose I mean it is understandable why it was hard to talk about certain things – rather than just a reluctance to talk about one’s self and life at all, for no particular reason other than being emotionally distant. But I digress.

House of Glass is Freeman’s exploration into the twentieth century history of her father’s family, specifically his mother’s – the Glass family. For Freeman, this story begins with her grandmother Sara, a glamorous Frenchwoman who always seemed sad to the young Hadley, though the reason why was never obvious. Freeman started out asa fashion journalist, and has continued to write about the importance of clothes, and so initially she planned to explore her grandmother’s story through her incredible French clothes that she wore for years and years after she emigrated to the US in the 1930s. But when she went to look at her grandmother’s clothes after she died, Freeman discovered a shoebox at the back of her wardrobe filled with completely unknown objects – photographs, letters and telegrams, and incredibly a signed drawing by Picasso. She had to investigate.

Personally I loved this little framing device. The objects Freeman found in the box are used as little signposts throughout the book, each new thread of the story relating back to that photo, that letter or telegram, that drawing… slowly she brings all the threads together to form an incredible story that really was not just the story of her grandmother, Sara, but also of Sara’s siblings, parents, husband, and children.

Freeman also recounts a holiday she remembers from when she was a child, which was, as it turned out, the first time they had been together as a group in years – and the last. Again this is brought back to the reader throughout the book to remind us of the impact of the past, long and detailed, on our modern childhood memories. Nothing is as simple as it seems, every little look and statement, tone of voice and expression, comes from a long history between relatives.

The Glass siblings – Sara, Alex, Jacques, and Henri – are each studied in turn, building the wider picture of their family story chapter by chapter. I adored the way that Freeman took her time with this story, giving each family member, including the Glass parents, enough time to really be studied, to get a good sense of their own individual experiences and how they came together to influence Freeman’s generation and her father’s. There is a real sense of how the long years of the past can feel compressed into the current state of the family and those that are left. In each person, past and present, there are so many stories, so many little things that come together to make us feel nostalgic, sad, happy, and overwhelmed all at once.

Each of the Glass siblings’ stories are by turns thrilling, banal, fascinating, and heartbreaking. There are all the usual up and downs of family life and relationships, punctured throughout by devastating moments both small and all-encompassing. All of them in their own ways have stories that are completely incredible and hugely varied, before, during, and after the Second World War. Really there is too much to go into here. So let’s go back to Sara.

Freeman states that she always loved her grandmother, and wanted to be close to her, but that Sara always seemed sad and a bit distant, and it was difficult for the young Hadley to connect with her. I think as the only woman in the group, as it were, Freeman wanted to connect with Sara in some way and know more about her. There was also the fact that Freeman just spent more time with Sara growing up than any of the other Glass siblings, and so it was frustrating to have this lack of knowledge about a person so close to you, about your father’s mother. Throughout the book I really felt Freeman’s sympathy and deep feeling for Sara, for the losses and hardships she went through. She was the only Glass sibling to leave Europe before the War, sent to America by her brothers to marry a man she hardly knew; Freeman carefully explores how even though she was safe from the dangers of wartime Europe, Sara suffered hugely in her new, safe, life and while this was a different kind of suffering to that of her brothers it was not to be discounted or belittled. Sara’s story reflects that of many women throughout history who have lead a seemingly perfect happy little life but were completely cut off from the things that they really wanted, from the people that they really wanted to be. This can happen to all people in some ways, but it is mostly something that happens to women. All of this with the pain and loss, and uncertainty, of the Second World War happening around (and in some ways to) her family, thousands of miles away.

That quiet devastation, that separation Sara felt every day from the life she could have had in Paris, is something that runs throughout the history of women who take, by choice or by force, a safe option. And like so many other women, Sara took joy in her children and dedicated her life to making theirs better than hers, making sure they were happy and fulfilled – making sure they could live the lives they wanted. To know this about one’s own grandmother is heartbreaking, and Freeman explores all this with sensitivity and empathy, combining her journalistic investigative skills with the deep desire to know more about her grandmother’s life.

All of which to say, I completely loved House of Glass. It is an expertly crafted memoir, both deeply personal and an analytical look at the journey of a Jewish family in twentieth century Europe and America. This is not necessarily as easy balance to get right, but Freeman does it excellently. For me personally this was pretty much the perfect book, blending history and personal memoir to devastating effect. More please.

*

Published in the US by Simon & Schuster, and in the UK by Fourth Estate, in 2020. I read the Fourth Estate hardback, pictured above.

Purchase from Blackwell’s, Wordery, and Foyles.

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