Lead Review

  • Book: The House by the Lake
  • Location: Berlin
  • Author: Thomas Harding

Review Author: tripfiction

Location

Content

4.5*

The House by the Lake was serialised on BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week.

The eponymous house of the title is a weekend cottage built on the shores of the lake at Groß Glienecke, a village West of metropolitan Berlin. Here the Wollank family, a land owning family, was looking to maximise their assets, renting out parcels of land to Berliners looking for some Summer respite. The Alexander family chose to build their house there in order to have a place of carefree refuge to unwind during the Summer months. It is their house that is central to the narrative.

The house is beautifully situated with direct access to the glittering lake for swimming, boating and nature observation. It feels like this is a sanctuary where the locals haven’t a care in the world. But, as a reader, we know that the village and the various inhabitants will have to go through two world wars and a divided country, hovering on the division line of East and West Germany. The House on the Lake is as much a story about family life as it is about politics and world history.

The guardianship of this cosy and basic house is passed across the families – from the Wollanks who were the land owners to a Jewish family, then a renowned Nazi composer, a widow and her children, and then to a Stasi informant. The author’s interest in the house was kindled when he first visited in 1993 with his grandmother who was forced to leave the sanctuary of the property when the Nazis consolidated their power. She called it her “soul place“.

The author’s aim was to save the building and with it the intimate history of lives that stood witness to more than a century of troubled times, interspersed with life and laughter and of course sadness and trauma. The last decade saw it fall into the hands of squatters and the building was scheduled to be pulled down, as it had gone to wrack and ruin, but Harding determinedly sought protection to ensure a future for the house. There is still a great deal of renovation to be done and the house’s website offers more insight into the projects underway and where donations can be made.

The author has an incredibly readable style of writing that drew me in right from the beginning, and the history is easy to absorb through the human portraits he so diligently paints. If you want to delve into German history and understand more about the lives of ordinary people caught up in the vortex of world events, then I urge you to pick up this book – it is both a microcosm of the country and a potted history of the last hundred plus years. Recommended.

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