Books

Emily St John Mandel
The Glass Hotel

Read in light of current events, there is something eerily prescient about Emily St John Mandel’s breakout 2014 novel, Station Eleven, which takes place in a post-apocalyptic reality after a viral pandemic. Her follow-up, The Glass Hotel, is set in a more recognisable world that contains echoes of the global financial crisis and captures the abrupt altering of individual lives.

The main character of The Glass Hotel is Vincent, a young woman who works at the Hotel Caiette, a resort on a remote part of Vancouver Island. One night she meets Jonathan Alkaitis, an obscenely wealthy widower who exhibits “that breezy assumption that no serious harm could come to him”. Vincent accepts Alkaitis’ invitation to pose as his wife, overlooking her lack of any real affection for him and his dubious business arrangements. The attraction for Vincent is not to wealth, but to a life in which she need not worry about money, although “later her memories of those years had an abstracted quality, as if she’d stepped temporarily outside herself”.

When Alkaitis’ Ponzi scheme collapses, Vincent finds work as a cook on board a container ship, where she finally discovers happiness. The narrative then ripples outwards, exploring the disastrous implications of Alkaitis’ downfall. Olivia, an artist who invested her only financial windfall, and Leon, a shipping executive, both fall into poverty. Alkaitis’ employees, given a collective voice by Mandel, question their ability to “both know and not know” the true nature of their work. In jail Alkaitis slides into parallel realities, which prevent him from facing up to his catastrophic consequences. The characters who fare best are those who confront their circumstances directly, rather than feeling their consequences “approaching from a long way off”.

Mandel’s novel is kaleidoscopic, roaming in time, place and perspective. Each life, suggests Mandel, contains multiple lives – periods of success and failure, moments of ease and corresponding difficulty. Taken at different times, a life may be interpreted in different ways: even Alkaitis was beloved by his late wife, though later reviled by investors. Mandel is aware that fiction, too, can contain these multiplicities; no person in The Glass Hotel is one thing to everybody, nobody is “incorruptible”. In this fractured but immersive novel, Mandel strives for complexity over reductive truths.

Gretchen Shirm

Picador, 256pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 11, 2020 as "Emily St John Mandel, The Glass Hotel".

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Reviewer: Gretchen Shirm