Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
Emily St John Mandel’s latest novel, “The Glass Hotel”, is staggering in its scope with myriad characters and a cleverly devised plot. The backgrounds are seductive. It begins in a 5-star hotel set in a tiny remote settlement on the west coast of Canada. Then the New York scene, both shadowy and glamorous, comes alive. Later Vincent, the enigmatic ‘heroine’ is a cook on a container ship crossing the stormy Atlantic; while descriptions of life in a medium security prison are chilling in the psychological effect it can have on prisoners.
Early in the novel, two men converse in the foyer of a luxury hotel in a lonely location. Jonathan Alkaitis, a pivotal character, has everything in material terms. He holds the reins of a massive wealth management company; he is handsome, is well connected, and owns an enormous number of valuable assets. Yet this chapter ends with the statement that he will die in prison.
This knowledge snatches the reader’s attention and discovering the path that leads to the imprisonment of Alkaitis makes the novel difficult to put down.
There are many characters peopling its pages, but it is Vincent the bar attendant, whose progress in the years following the meeting in the hotel above, gives the novel its shape. Alkaitis is drawn to her as she works behind the bar and Vincent becomes his close companion in the years following. The young Vincent is a complex character with a troubled childhood but with a determination and will to survive. Chameleon-like, she adapts to each situation in which she finds herself. She is beautiful and her cool assurance means she easily slips into a role – be it mixing drinks in a grand hotel, blending into the wealthy scene in New York where work is shopping in exclusive boutiques and shops, or cooking for the crew of a container ship.
She makes the world of the wildly rich with all its privileges, her world. This stage of her life, in fact the entire book, is wonderfully written.
“The Glass Hotel” is highly original but, for me, it is the language which gains attention. At times, the reality it creates is lyrical which makes it truly absorbing. Readers will be lost in the world of investment, indulgence, wealth and freedom.
The luminous prose is the outstanding feature and when Vincent glides into this elite world of New York, she is, at times, bemused by the person she has become.
“Ghosts of Vincent’s earlier selves flocked around the table and stared at the beautiful clothes she was wearing”. Such simple but powerful imagery is contained in this sentence. How consummate is the skill of this writer? Her style is almost painterly.
It is a consolation to most of us to learn that Vincent and her shopping friend, Mirelle, do not take too long to find endless spending in the realms of Fifth Avenue is really boring and pointless.
Alkaitis has designed his Arrangement, a Ponzi scheme, and it’s the background and ethics of this that grips and cannot fail to strike a chord, as so much tragedy erupted with the Financial Crisis of 2008. Alkaitis appears without remorse with few exceptions, but the caring side of the man is revealed in references to Suzanne, his beloved wife who died, some years prior, of cancer.
Emily St John Mandel lives in New York but is Canadian by birth. If you haven’t read any of her former novels, like “Station Eleven”, don’t hesitate to get your copy of her latest book. I refrained from mentioning too much of the plot – which is very skilfully unwound and it is an additional delight to those who love fine writing. Initially, time is flipped about which would annoy some; but quite soon this settles and, although there are many minor characters, they are never confusing.
There is a surprising flourish towards the end. Graffiti which startles at the beginning is revealed as being frighteningly significant in a final chapter.
Perhaps I have praised this book too much; however, I think that even people who don’t seek out literary work will find much to enjoy within its covers.
The Glass Hotel
By Emily St John Mandel
Pan MacMillan Australia
ISBN 9 781509 882816.