Friday, 3 July 2020

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The Glass Hotel by Emily St, John Mandel    {Reviewed by STELLA}
Mirage and subterfuge, reality and counterlives, transformation and invention are the players in Emily St.John Mandel’s latest novel. Her previous novel, Station Eleven, was centred in the aftermath of worldly collapse, complete with a pandemic. The Glass Hotel takes us back to the early 2000s, with its escalating wealth capital and house-of-cards financial boom and bust. Vincent is an attractive young woman loitering in her hometown, working as a bartender at an upmarket exclusive hotel on the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island: The Glass Hotel, owned by financier Jonathan Alkaitis. The night Vincent and Alkaitis meet, an unnerving action has occurred: someone had written graffiti on the glass window of the entry lounge. “Why don’t you swallow broken glass.” A message for Alkaitis we presume — one he never sees — but which shakes Vincent and a guest, shipping executive Leon Prevant, to the core. What does it mean? And why has someone bothered to display this message so viciously (when its target could have easily been accessed in New York), in one of the remotest places Vincent knows, a place she describes as two roads to nowhere. The novel opens and closes with a first-person narrative of falling through the ocean — it is lyrical and strangely eerie. A ghostly theme that recurs in several places in The Glass Hotel — either with hallucinatory drugs or stress-induced experiences, or within the counterlife narratives of Alkaitis. Between these ocean fallings, we follow Vincent, her half-brother Paul, and Alkaitis as their lives unfold and intertwine. Here is the complacency of being a ‘trophy wife’, the denial of a crime (Alkaitis’s financial activities parallel Bernie Madoff’s schemes and his eventual downfall) and the stories one tells to justify rotten behaviour and errors of judgement. Paul is shallow, but wanting to be wonderful — a recovering drug addict who will stoop to any depths to pull himself up. Alkaitis is successful, blooming with the confidence of money. Vincent is ready and able to reinvent herself with merely a blink of an eye. In The Glass Hotel, we move in the dance-drug scene, we traipse through the mundanity of dead-end jobs and the precariat class, we luxuriate in the world of the moneyed, and edge into the knife-sharpened pretence of the art scene. But mostly what we are called out for, as are all the players in this game, is our complacency in being part of this structure. As Alkaitis sits in jail, he questions who is the biggest crook: his criminal activity — a Ponzi scheme — or the investors who want more and better returns on their precious dollars? When Vincent starts life again after her days with Jonathan, can she escape her belief that she knew nothing? When Paul becomes a well-known avant-garde composer can he let loose his demons? Hauntings pervade The Glass Hotel.  Emily St.John Mandel’s excellent writing, from the main threads to the bit players, familiar settings as well as oblique passages, makes The Glass Hotel a fascinating, compelling novel. The more you walk away from The Glass Hotel, the more it will come back to you with its questioning voice and its insistence that responsibility is necessary and long overdue  a  haunting that refuses to be quiet.  

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