In The House by the Lake: One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History, Thomas Harding* tells the history of twentieth century Germany through the lens of a small vacation home, located on a lake near the outskirts of Berlin, and the five families who owned it.
Harding is not an impartial observer in the tale.
In 2013, he traveled to Germany to visit a small lakeside vacation home that had belonged to his family until the 1930s, when they fled from the Nazi rise to power. He had heard stories about the house his entire life. Now the house that his grandmother has described as her “soul place” was an empty eyesore, scheduled for demolition. The local architectural preservationists told him that if he didn’t want the house to be knocked down, he would have to prove its cultural and historical significance.
The House by the Lake is the outcome of Harding’s attempt to piece together the history of the house and the people who live there. Thanks to the lake house’s location and the nature of the families who occupied it, the history of the house allows Harding to consider the scope of Germany’s history through the intimate details of individual lives. (The construction and demolition of the Berlin Wall, for instance, take on a new immediacy because the wall ran through the land that connected the house to the lake.) The result is a compelling new look at familiar territory.
This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.