During the calm before the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, two European couples in Prague get caught up in the era's false promise of love and freedom.
Oxford students James Borthwick and Eleanor Pike visit Prague on a whim while hitchhiking across Europe. He's a first-year science student from the north of England; she's a strong-willed socialist with a classier background who's studying English in her second year. The other couple consists of Prague-based British diplomat Sam Wareham and local student and part-time journalist Lenka Konecková. Separated from his girlfriend in the diplomatic service, Sam becomes smitten with Lenka and her beauty and youthful spirit. Much of the book tells the story of the twosomes on parallel tracks. For a long stretch, relatively minor concerns such as James' insecurity in his romantic pursuit of Ellie are front and center, with occasional timeouts for brief lessons in Czechoslovak history. But Mawer (Tightrope, 2012, etc.), playing a neat cat-and-mouse game with the reader, gradually turns up the temperature of the novel, shaking us out of our comfort zones with a surge of dark events. Into Sam's reluctant care falls a world-famous Russian pianist who pleads for asylum for himself and his violinist girlfriend. As the Soviet threat intensifies and Czechoslovak leader Alexander Dubcek's bold promise of "socialism with a human face" fades, the characters' personal lives and the past traumas that inform them are put in a new perspective. "What had Lenka and her friends, with their 15 minutes of freedom, imagined would happen?" comments the third-person narrator. "This was reality. The last eight months had been but a dream."
Making a strong return to the Eastern European setting of his acclaimed novel The Glass Room (2009), British author Mawer limns the Cold War to affecting and ultimately chilling effect.