Friday, December 11, 2020

Review: The Glass Hotel

From The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel:

quote Begin at the end: plummeting down the side of the ship in the storm’s wild darkness, breath gone with the shock of falling, my camera flying away through the rain—" The Glass Hotel
A novel like shattered glass reassembled at random. Read it all the way to the end and you eventually get the full story of rootless characters whose lives seem repeatedly shattered and reassembled. Does anyone find peace in the end? Maybe a little.

Grade: A-

I chose to read "The Glass Hotel" because of the author, Emily St. John Mandel. She also wrote "Station Eleven", a post-apocalyptic novel about a flu pandemic that kills 99% of the world's population. In my review, I wrote, "I found it fascinating to imagine what would happen to the world if a global pandemic did strike." In hindsight, that novel should have been published in 2020, not 2014. Also in hindsight, that novel should have shut up anyone who claimed, in 2020, that no one could have foreseen the novel coronavirus. No one except anyone who ever read a science fiction novel maybe.

"The Glass Hotel" is not science fiction. It is set in the here and now. Nothing happens to the world. It's what happens to the characters that draws our interest. The story is, roughly, the story of Vincent's life. Vincent is female. Her mother was drawn to the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. She grew up in a remote village on the northern tip of Vancouver island of British Columbia. Vincent's mother dies when Vincent is a girl. Her father dies when she's in high school. She is sent to live with an unwelcoming aunt in Vancouver. She spends the rest of her life rootless. She ends up back on the island tending bar in the expensive Hotel Caiette, the glass hotel of the novel's title. A chance encounter with the wealthy owner of the hotel leads to a brief stay in what Vincent calls "the kingdom of money." When that inevitably ends, her rootless life reaches its natural culmination, a vagabond life at sea on a freighter.

Vincent disappears from the pages of the novel for whole chapters, as focus turns to the people in Vincent's life. Her half-brother is Paul, a drug addict who is in and out of rehab, thinking himself a music composer, but finding himself back in Caiette, doing menial jobs at the same hotel that his sister tends bar. The rich hotel owner that sweeps Vincent away from it all is Jonathan Alkaitis. His secrets eventually come out, suddenly ending Vincent's stay in the kingdom of money. In not much more than a cameo, there's Leon Prevant, a shipping executive taken from the pages of "Station Eleven." Different novel, but same character, same background. His life plays out differently in this novel than in Emily St. John Mandel's earlier work.

Besides the reuse of certain characters, "The Glass Hotel" is also similar to "Station Eleven" in structure. The story is not told chronologically, but jumps around in time and place. I said this story is not science fiction, but ghosts haunt many of the characters. The symbolism of glass is put to multiple uses. Like a threat or omen, mysterious grafitti about broken glass is written on the wall of glass that separates the characters in the elegant hotel lobby from the wilderness outside. Eventually, Jonathan Alkaitis, his own life shattered, slips uneasily between reality and a dementia he calls the "counterlife." In the end, we have to return to the opening of the novel ("Begin at the end"). Vincent's camera flies from her hands. Earlier (in time, later in the novel), one of the characters says to Vincent, "What I'm suggesting," Caroline said softly, "is that the lens can function as a shield between you and the world, when the world's just a little too much to bear. If you can't stand to look at the world directly, maybe it's possible to look at it through the viewfinder." A reader can do worse than look at the world through the viewfinder of "The Glass Hotel."

"The Glass Hotel" is available in Kindle format from the Richardson Public Library.

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