Book review: The Glass Hotel, by Emily St John Mandel

Emily St John Mandel fulfils her early promise with an irresistible mix of mystery, metaphysics and morality in resonant prose, writes Stuart Kelly
Emily St John Mandel was born and raised on Denman Island off the west coast of British Columbia. Photograph: Sarah ShatzEmily St John Mandel was born and raised on Denman Island off the west coast of British Columbia. Photograph: Sarah Shatz
Emily St John Mandel was born and raised on Denman Island off the west coast of British Columbia. Photograph: Sarah Shatz

The Glass Hotel is a very artfully constructed title for a very artfully constructed novel. “Hotel” implies transience and glass suggests transparency, yet over the course of the story that which has been hidden has a dogged habit of returning. Readers may know St John Mandel’s work from the deservedly bestselling Station Eleven. Her previous three novels, which I read after being blown away by Station Eleven, are also extremely good. The Glass Hotel is a strange, perhaps even more ambitious book, and its strangeness is very much its virtue.

It begins with a wink to the postmodern. It is a kind of overture, entitled “Vincent In The Ocean”, dated to the end of 2018, and starts “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 boat, we learn, is the Neptune Cumberland. It then flits back to 1994 and 1999, where Paul, unhappily studying finance instead of music at the University of Toronto, tries to ingratiate himself with an electronica band by offering them tablets of E, of unknown and, it transpires, dubious provenance. After something inevitable happens, he scurries off to his sister: Vincent.

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The third section is a complete change of gear. I had thought, 30 pages in, the novel was going to be about the bohemian grunge era, artistic aspiration and how atomised these lives were before the millennium. But no. We are suddenly in the eponymous Glass Hotel, situated on the small island of Caiette, off the coast of British Columbia. There is a beautiful woman called Vincent working the bar. There is a night houseman called Paul. A man, Leon, is sitting nursing a whisky in the bar, who it turns out works for a shipping company called Neptune-Avramidis. Someone puts a message in the usually translucent window – “Why don’t you swallow broken glass?” – which unsettles everyone just as the owner, Jonathan Altakis, a financier from Manhattan, enters the hotel, which he also happens to own. He also happens to be a widower.

Even a cursory setting out of the premises should alert the reader to two things. Firstly, the novel moves between different milieux, and part of the excitement of reading it is wondering where the characters will be – or even who they will be – as we progress. Secondly, it has set up a braid of interconnections, and there is a narrative momentum in wanting to know how these disparate lives will be entwined. There are other characters, such as Walter, the hotel’s night-manager; Olivia, a painter who has money to invest and knows some stories from the past; a brilliantly sketched small group of employees who work in Jonathan’s secretive “assets management group” on “the Arrangement”; Jonathan’s dead wife; and Ella, a tenacious woman who has rumbled early on the novel’s central conceit: a Ponzi Scheme. The form allows St John Mandel to have courtroom drama, wry satires on the super-wealthy, slightly sentimental itinerant road trips and other genres besides.

But it provides the moral core of the novel. At one point, Vincent, in her new incarnation, muses that it is not “stuff” that keeps her in “the kingdom of money… what kept her in the kingdom was the previously unimaginable condition of not having to think about money, because that’s what money gives you: the freedom to stop thinking about money”. The “chorus” sections have the various complicit characters thinking about a phrase that comes up in the trial. “It’s possible to both know and not know something.” It gets to the heart of the ethical compromise “knowing you’re not a good person but trying to be a good person regardless around the margins of the bad.” This insight is not exclusive to those involved in the fraud.

The other genre which the novel subtly incorporates is storytelling in its most gothic form. Olivia, with her model, makes up possible ghost stories. Jonathan talks about the “counterlife”, but his interlocutor retorts, “I always wanted to believe in ghosts, I think it would be cool if they were floating around, but I’m not so sure they are real”. Two sections are ironically headed “A Fairy Tale”, and towards the very end the metaphysical nub is made clear. “What does it mean to be a ghost… there are so many ways to haunt a person, or a life.” Your circumstances can change, but the consequences of your actions will always be there, just as a new haircut doesn’t change your DNA. It is a novel of thefts; from fiscal larceny, to the theft of hopes, to the loss of a mother, to the appropriation of another’s artistic endeavours, to the loss of love.

The Hotel Caiette, nicknamed the Glass Hotel, is not The Overlook from The Shining. It is rather more frightening than that. There is a phrase in fraud prevention – if it looks too good to be true then it’s probably not true. In the literary world, if it looks too true to be real then it’s a great work of fiction. St John Mandel is the real real, psychologically astute, morally wise and all done in singingly beautiful prose.

Book review: The Glass Hotel, by Emily St John Mandel, Picador, £14.99

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