Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 14, 2017

The House by the Lake (2015), by Thomas Harding

Thomas Harding’s The House by the Lake is in some ways similar to Penelope Lively’s A House Unlocked which I read and reviewed back in 2009.   Lively’s book tells the stories of objects in her family’s country house that her grandparents bought in 1923, and in doing so creates a social history of her time, covering the period of rapid change in the interwar years as well as WW2.  However in one crucial respect,  Harding’s memoir of his family’s house and its people is different: whereas the Lively house always stayed in family hands, for the house by the lake in Germany there were five changes of ownership during the tumultuous 20th century.

A hundred years after Otto von Wollank’s estate had run into economic trouble after the First  World War; after the collapse of Imperial Germany, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, communism and reunification; after five families had fallen in love with the land, only to be dispossessed; after twelve years of being abandoned, the house at last has a brighter future. (p.357)

As you can see from the book’s cover photograph, the Groß Glienicke Lake lay right by the path of the Berlin Wall which severed the community during the Cold War.  When the house was built in the 1920s as a weekender by its first owner, it was a pretty spot, and a relaxing distance from the busy city of Berlin.  But the rise of Nazism meant that it became prudent for its Jewish owners to flee and they were lucky to make it out in time.  The house was Aryanised by the Nazis and purchased at a bargain price by opportunistic buyers, and after the war under the Soviets,  those same buyers were dispossessed when they fled to West Germany – and a Stasi informer moved in.  But on the night the Berlin Wall came down, the residents took to the wall with a sledgehammer and were able to take a swim in the lake for the first time in years.  (You can read a timeline of events at the house here.)

Over the decades the house was altered, enlarged, subdivided and trashed, and the last part of the book is about a restoration project in order to save it from demolition.  The family had previously accepted compensation for the loss of the house so it was owned by the local council who wanted to build low-cost housing there.  (You can see photos here, because this book was a BBC Book of the Week.)  So yes, this book by the great grandson of its original owners is nostalgic, as well as a quest for some kind of justice for the house as a symbol of Germany’s history.  For those not familiar with this history, the book is a journey through the century, but my interest waned as the pages went by because the people living in the house lacked presence and their personalities were suppressed by the weight of the author’s research. (Which is thorough, there are pages and pages of notes at the back of the book and copious B&W photos).

The property is now owned by the City of Potsdam which has agreed to its restoration and development as a Centre for Education and Reconciliation, and this book is part of the process of explaining the significance of the house.

The House by the Lake was nominated for a Costa Award for Biography. However, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to describe it as blurber John Le Carré does, as ‘a gripping thriller’. ..

Author: Thomas Harding
Title: The House By the Lake, A Story of Germany
Publisher: William Heinemann, 2015
ISBN: 9780434023233
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings, $35.00 AUD

Available from Fishpond: The House by the Lake



  1. Sounds fascinating! I loved that Lively book, but this sounds like it has something of a twist to it!


    • It’s not as engaging as the Lively book: Harding actually has more to work with, but he’s not a great writer like Lively is.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have this to read. The idea of the book sounds interesting.


    • I’d love to know what you think of it. Fortunately, I subscribe to your blog so I won’t miss your review when you write it!


  3. Gripping thriller seems a bit of a misnomer for this book. The idea of history through a building reminds me a little of an autobiographical book by Margaret Forster called My Life in Houses


    • Oh, I like the sound of that, I’ve liked every book I’ve ever read by Margaret Forster…I don’t think that one has made it to the publicity machine here in Australia or I would have bought it already for sure.

      #Musing: You know, I could write a book like that. Strange to remember it now when next year in 2018 I’m coming up to 30 years in my present house, but I went to fourteen different schools (with accompanying different houses) on three continents before I was in Year 5 at primary school, and I lived in some more after I married, so I have plenty to work with…


      • You would have a good structure to work with and plenty of scope for comparing education systems across the world


        • *chuckle* You’re making the mistake of thinking that I got my education in schools. Not so. I went to plenty of them, but I don’t remember any of them, anywhere, not until the last two (of four) in Australia. I got my real education at home, from books and music and my parents.


          • Still makes for a good story….


            • I don’t think I’ve got the self-discipline to write a book…


  4. Reblogged this on penwithlit.


  5. Not sure I’d be “thrilled” by the biography of a house.


    • Well no. I think it is overhyped on the cover because the book is part of the effort to save the house.


  6. […] The House by the Lake, by Thomas Harding […]


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