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

(cover image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

Rather fittingly given the precarious viral-afflicted times in which humanity currently finds itself, Emily St. John Mandel is best known for a book which examines the aftermath of a pandemic that sweeps across the globe in a frighteningly fast timeframe, taking over 99% of people with it, leaving civilisation in a shattered heap and beleaguered survivors to pick up the pieces of what remains.

The novel, Station Eleven, is an impressively original take on the apocalypse because it dares, quite successfully as it turns out, to imagine what humanity would be like when all the dust of the end of the world has settled and how it might rebuild itself.

It dares to argue that humanity, far from descending into the endlessly internecine warfare of The Walking Dead, might have the tenacity, inner spirit and wherewithal to stare down such an event and rise back up again, forging a surprising new world from the old.

The Glass Hotel, by way of contrast, isn’t nearly so robust in its faith in the human spirit to endure and make good on past mistakes, making it clear in a story that spans decades and the lives of an enthralling cast of characters that we are perhaps more haunted and thus imperilled by the ghosts our past that any of us would like to admit.

Exploring the stories of a bartender turned trophy wife turned chef, her brother who charts an equally mixed course, a shipping executive who falls on hard times and then somehow rises up again, and a financier whose Ponzi scheme collapses taking the fortunes of countless people with it, The Glass Hotel is a breathtakingly involving book that takes you on an expansive look at the ups and downs of living life.

“I want to see my brother. I can hear him talking to me, and my memories of him are agitating. I concentrate very hard and abruptly I’m standing on a narrow street, in the dark, in the rain, in a foreign city. A man is slumped in a doorway just across from me, and I haven’t seen my brother in a decade but I know that it’s him. Paul looks up and there’s time to notice that he looks terrible, gaunt and undone, he sees me but then the street blinks out—” (P. 4)

It is honest in a refreshing way about our capacity to dream about the very best that is possible but also our ability to compromise in ways that diminish the dream until its attainment is at best fleeting and at worst fatally compromised.

Take Jonathan Alkaitis, a man who has risen to the very heights of wealth and influence, who owns a hotel in the remote northern region of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, where two of the other characters central to the narrative, half-siblings Paul and younger sister Vincent, work and who thinks nothing of jetting off to Paris on his private plane.

He is man connected to royalty and the nouveau riche, trusted by them to invest their money and beloved for the consistently high returns he offers all his investors, returns so good in fact that only one person, Ella Kaspersky can see beyond the ringing of the till to realise that nothing can be as good as it seems.

By all appearances his is a charmed existence, the kind of life borne of hard work and honesty; the truth is, of course, anything but, his lifestyle resting on a house of cards that one day comes tumbling down in spectacular fashion, taking his friends, employees, investors and one particular woman down with it.

Emily St. John Mandel ( image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

That woman is Vincent, younger sister to drug addict Paul, a woman who has endured a great deal of personal loss and who is at a loose end in life until Alkaitis walks into the bar of the hotel he owns, the Hotel Caiette, and presents her with an unmissable opportunity to better her life.

She is actually a person with a great deal of personal and artistic integrity but she is also unsure of her next step and the interest from Alkaitis, three years from losing his beloved wife to cancer, is too good to ignore and so she allows herself to be whisked off to a life of indulgent wealth and luxury.

On paper it’s a win for both parties but Vincent begins to reealise that living in the land of money, as she terms it, is not without its drawbacks and compromises and that she is not entirely sure she has gained more than she lost, material benefits notwithstanding.

A fascinating element of The Glass Hotel is the author’s use of magical realism and of imagined alternate realities and counter lives.

Every single character to one degree or another sees their past mistakes or those hurt by them manifest in some kind of physical form or another, with each of them convinced they are deeply troubled, going mad or deserving of some kind of punishment.

“There’s a morning in FCI Florence Medium 1 when Alkaitis steps out into the yard and sees a flash of colour in the crowd. It’d red, but that’s impossible. Red isn’t allowed here. Not just red, but a power red suit, of the kind he hasn’t seen on a woman since the early nineties, mid-nineties at the latest, fire-engine red with extremely padded shoulders. The woman wearing it seems to move too quickly; in a few steps she has somehow crossed the yard and is standing near him, staring.” (P. 222)

Their inclination to live in alternative imagine realities is understadable.

Each of the vividly-realised characters, brought to life and sustained by writing which is elegant, honest and empathetic, have good reason to deflect the harsh circumstances in which they find themselves, through their own hand and those of others, and all but a few end up paying for their crimes, actual or existential, by the end of the book, almost mandating that a certain form of escapism be pursued.

The use of this narrative device is beautifully accomplished, with each of the characters, regardless of their defects and flaws, coming across as relatable people with whom we can identify, if not in deed then at least in the desire for our dreams to be realised and our realities burnished.

The Glass Hotel is a compelling, immersive read that not only takes us over time and distance to great effect but explores with great understanding and thought how people keep striving for the very best even as they keep manifesting the very worst of things.

If this sounds unduly pessimistic about the human condition, it’s not; rather the novel, Mandel’s fifth, is a work of poetic, sensitively-realised insight that talks with true empathy about everyone’s need to be better than they are, the compromises and mistakes we make to realise these idealised versions of ourselves, and the stark reality of not quite making them come alive even as hope, endless if misguided, impels us ever onward to try, and try again.

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