A review of the novel “Prague Spring” by Simon Mawer

In some ways, Mawer is an unlikely fiction writer. He took a degree in Zoology at Oxford University and has worked as a biology teacher in Rome for most of his life and he only published his first novel at the comparatively late age of 41. I discovered him through his eighth novel, the wonderful “The Glass Room” which is largely set in what was then Czechoslovakia before and during the Second World War. I subsequently read his next two novels which feature the same leading character in the Second World War and early Cold War respectively: “The Girl Who Fell From The Sky” and “Tightrope”.

So “Prague Spring” is his tenth novel and I have learned to really enjoy his style. Like “The Glass Room”, his latest work is set in Czechsolvakia but in a different and very narrow period: the few weeks running up to the Warsaw Pact invasion of August 1968 and the occupation itself. Like “The Girl Who Fell From The Sky”, it has an abrupt and incomplete ending and so I hope that, as with “Tightrope”, we will have a sequel.

The narrative involves two couples with their stories only converging two-thirds of the way through the novel. James and Ellie are Oxford University students who decide to use the summer to hitchhike in Europe and, almost by accident, find themselves in the Czechoslovak capital at the fateful time, along the way developing a kind of relationship. Sam is a diplomat at the British Embassy in Prague and Lenka is a Czech student protestor and they quickly make an unlikely, but passionate, couple. Very soon after the four meet, all of their lives are shaken by the sudden occupation of the country. 

Mawer was a student at Oxford at the time of the Warsaw Pact invasion and it will have made an impact on him as it did on me at the time (we are the same age). As he revealed in “The Glass Room” and as is again evident in “Prague Spring”, he has a deep knowledge of Czech history, country and language (I know a bit too having visited 28 times and studied the language) and I appreciated the manner in which he weaves so much knowledge and insight into a novel which is about relationships as well as history, politics and culture.


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