Tuesday, March 21, 2006

12. Hotel World

by Ali Smith

Hotel World is a book I’ve seen around numerous times in the various used bookstores I visit. I’ve always been interested in it, but something about it – perhaps the bright pink cover – always caused me to hesitate when reading over the back cover. Ultimately, I always put it back on the shelf. Yes, I judge books by their covers, but not entirely on their covers and, hey, you can’t tell me that covers don’t matter. They do. So when I made my Booker/Orange prize pledge this year and found out that this book had been shortlisted for both in 2001, I got over the pink and picked it up the next time it came into view.

Which is a good thing because this book was exactly how I was hoping it would be and not at all how I feared it might be. The back cover starts out by saying, “Five people: four are living; three are strangers; two are sisters; one, a teenage hotel chambermaid, has fallen to her death in a dumbwaiter,” and that’s a pretty succinct description of what happens in this book. Broken into five parts, Ali Smith inhabits the mind of each of these women, telling their portion of the story and what leads their lives to intersect. This isn’t the kind of book that sets up elaborate back-stories then strings them together for a contrived meeting. These are simply the stories of five people, somehow connected with the Global Hotel.

Sara has just found love, finding herself enamored with the girl at the watch repair shop. It’s the first few moments of happiness she feels just before climbing into a dumbwaiter that snaps and propels her to her death. It’s through her spirit that her story is told and Smith never makes Sara regretful or emotional about her death, keeping her matter of fact and curious as to the events that caused it. This is probably the weirdest ethereal-spirit-speaks-to-its-deceased-corporeal-body scene you’ll ever read, if, in fact, you happen to ever read another, but Smith makes it work. It’s nothing short of cool.

Else is the homeless girl with the rattling cough who collects money on the steps of the hotel. Lise is the receptionist who invites Else into a room for the night, giving her a place to have a warm bath and free breakfast. Lise was there when Sara fell to her death, but her present story is unconcerned with that. When we meet Lise she’s put up in a bed, unable to walk, and filling out an employee form questioning the quantity and quality of pain she’s in. We don’t find out what’s wrong with her, but there’s clearly far more to her story than the night of the death. Penny is a journalist staying in the hotel who stumbles upon a chambermaid clawing away at a boarded up wall. A woman in a coat with pockets of change joins them and offers a coin to help loosen a screw. Clare, the subject of the fifth story, is that chambermaid frenziedly tearing down a shoddily boarded up hole. Clare is Sara’s teenage sister and while Smith’s choice to write Clare’s section in one huge run-on sentence is, at first, difficult to read, it lends the character the kind of confused desperation you’d expect in a girl whose older sister has just died unexpectedly.

What’s impressive is that Smith is able to write these five women with five distinct voices. You could argue that Smith’s way of writing in the third person, yet seeming to inhabit her characters’ heads in a first person sense, lending her words an almost eerie air – that isn’t entirely an accurate description but I can’t think of another way to put it - is a style all her own, and in that way these five parts resemble each other, but there’s a distinct change between each of these women’s stories that’s impressive. And what’s best about the book is that Smith doesn’t manipulate her readers into feeling any particular way about her characters or the events that draw them together. I think we know how I feel about that.

Hotel World is five stories, five cross-sections of five lives that is a thoroughly enjoyable read. If you ever see it in a used bookstore, it’s worth looking past the pink and picking up. I can’t give a much better recommendation than that. (And it’s more than I can say for my next Booker endeavor, The English Patient. I haven’t given up on it yet, but the prognosis is pretty grim. And if that book does meet its untimely, but deserved death, I have a pretty good mind to add Smith’s other double-nominated book, The Accidental, to my stack.)


Blogger piksea said...

I just read a review of 'The Accidental' in my local paper (The Philadelphia Inquirer) and the reviewer said that Smith used the same premise/style to much better effect in Hotel World. I know everyone is supposed to read 'The Accidental' because the book world is saying it's required, but I've been wondering if I should skip it and read Hotel World instead.

10:26 AM  
Blogger Exxie said...

I'm honestly not even that sure what The Accidental is about, except that it's a literary hottie right now, but I can certainly vouch for Hotel World. It would be interesting to compare the two and see if the reviewer's right.

6:42 PM  

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