The House by the Lake by Thomas Harding – Review

It’s not often I write a review of a book on this blog but it’s not often I read a history book that I enjoyed as much as The House by the Lake.

It will be little surprise to those of you that read this blog or follow me on Twitter to hear that I am a Germanophile. I love Germany and German history. Sometimes I think that maybe I was born in the wrong country. So when I read a review of The House by the Lake in the Guardian last weekend I couldn’t resist buying it and a week later I’m done and feel compelled to write about it.

Now, I’ll be honest, normally it takes me weeks (and sometimes months) to read a history book. Teaching is tiring so in the evening I only have so much energy for a history book. But this isn’t a normal history book. It’s a  historical narrative of one house told in the style of a fictional story and that is its charm. I love a good story and Thomas Harding is a great storyteller.

The house in question is a small house built by a lake in the village of Groß Glienicke on the outskirts of Berlin in 1927. The book chronicles the house up to the present day and in doing so tells the story of Germany in the 20th century. It begins with the Alexanders, a Jewish family who are forced to flee from Nazi Germany and then moves through the subsequent owners and occupiers until 2015. And in doing so the reader moves through the Third Reich and the war, the establishment of the DDR, the erection and fall of the Wall and all the other parts in between.

There is a lot of emphasis in the book on the individual characters who occupy the house and that is why it’s brilliant. Harding makes you feel for these people, no matter how questionable their actions. And through their eyes you see the unfolding narrative of the most important story of the twentieth century – Germany.

Every so often I read a book that I like so much I buy it for my friends and colleagues. I have bought untold copies of Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects! This is going to be the book I buy for everyone this year.