A guest review by Jenre
Not a romance, but a moving drama of grief, loss and coming to terms with being gay.
Christmas in mid-19th century Bavaria finds two grieving fathers coping with the tragic loss of their sons, who were also lovers. Confused and angered by what they believe to be their boys’ betrayal, Abelard Bauer, a brilliant toy maker, withdraws from the people who love him, and Andreas Schiffer, a wealthy gentleman, lashes out at his family. At the same time, fifteen-year-old Jakob Diederich, burdened with his own secret, develops an obsession with a traveling Englishman who stays at Jakob’s uncle’s inn, where he works. Bauer, Schiffer, and Diederich all struggle to reconcile their painful pasts with a hopeless present and an even more uncertain future. Each of them fights the currents of guilt, fading dreams, and the disparity between what he perceives to be real and what is real. Each looks for solace in situations that none can control. And all are bound to each other by one unique Christmas tree glass ornament.
This historical set in 1800s Bavaria tells the story of three characters. The first two, Bauer and Schiffer, are two men whose sons ran off together, leaving scandal in their wake. When the two young men die tragically their fathers are left with not only the ripples of the scandal to cope with, but also their own loss, their blame and their sorrow at what was said or not said between them and their sons. The story is set in the few days leading up to Christmas, over a year after the deaths of their sons, and follows the men as they face up to their grief and attempt to move on. Linked with this story is the character of Jakob, a fifteen year old boy who has come to realisation that he is gay. Two things happen to him during the story, firstly he discovers the story of Bauer and Schiffer’s sons which leads to realisation that he is not alone in his feelings, and secondly he becomes obsessed with an Englishman who is staying at the inn where he works.
The story is structured so that we have alternating chapters between the three main characters and each chapter begins with a short paragraph taken from the journal of Schiffer’s son Heinrich, as he records the growing love between him and Bauer’s son Stefan. Those short paragraphs form the only romance in the book and it’s bittersweet, as we know their fate is to die young. I have to admit this type of structure where we follow three separate stories, which then intertwine later, is never my favourite way of reading a book. I become too invested in one character – in this case, Jakob – and I got frustrated when I had to move onto the stories of Bauer and Schiffer. However, as the chapters were all quite short, it wasn’t long before I was back to Jakob. Jakob’s innocence and the almost painful way he latches onto the Englishman was very affecting, and I found myself sympathising with him and his young misguided love a great deal. Out of the three stories I least sympathised with Schiffer – as I think was expected. His selfish grief and the way it affects his family showed him to be self-absorbed and a little cruel. He hides behind the grief of Heinrich’s death and uses it as an excuse to behave badly, and even a redemptive conclusion to his story wasn’t enough for me to like him a great deal.
One of the successes of the story was in the way it looked at being gay and coming out from different perspectives, whilst also remaining true to the historical setting. Thus we see the joy and determination of Heinrich and Stefan to be together no matter the scandal and consequences for their families; the bewilderment and regret of Bauer over the way he handled Stefan’s confession of his feelings for Heinrich; and the loneliness and fear of Jakob as he realises that he is gay. These themes of loneliness, loss, regret, fear and longing circle through all the stories, making it rather a sombre and melancholy read, but also compelling and moving.
The historical setting is a backdrop to the events of the book, and especially Bauer’s shop and Jakob’s poverty are vivid and poignantly described. I liked that the setting wasn’t too aggressively realised, but rather was used to show the limitations of the characters and their lives. There was much that I found interesting, especially with the descriptions of the Christmas traditions.
Overall, this book was a well written drama, it’s character based plot was gentle but also convincing in its portrayal of the lives of these three characters. If you like historicals, especially sober dramas which make you think, then I would recommend The Glass Minstrel.