Back at the end of February (before the current guidance on social distancing came into place), I was lucky enough to attend an evening hosted by Faber & Faber, a showcase for recently published and forthcoming books. Eimear McBride was there, and she read a passage from her latest novel, Strange Hotel, a book I’d already been thinking of picking up before the reading. McBride introduced it by saying – and I’m paraphrasing from memory here – ‘if you want to know about hotels, this is not the book for you’. A very apt statement as it turns out…
Strange Hotel is not a typical ‘hotel novel’, the type of story peppered with interactions between various characters (frequently odd or idiosyncratic), thrown together for the duration of their trips. Instead, it’s a somewhat abstract or enigmatic work, the type of book where inner thoughts and self-reflections are more prominent than narrative and plot.
As the novel opens, the central character – an unnamed female protagonist in her mid-thirties – is checking into a hotel in Avignon, the first of five anonymous rooms we see during the novel, each in a different city. While the specific reason for these visits is never made explicit, there does seem to be a guiding principle or ‘plan’ underpinning the woman’s actions. She drinks wine, toys with the idea of a one-night-stand with a fellow guest, even goes as far as the act of sex itself – just as long as there are no requirements for either party to linger around afterwards.
For the protagonist, there is a degree of enjoyment in the dance, a sense of pleasure from reading the signals correctly – sometimes taking things to their natural conclusion should she feel so inclined. Nevertheless, in certain instances there is frustration too, especially if the man she decides to go to bed with doesn’t seem to understand the unwritten rules of the game.
She thinks she was as explicit as she could’ve been from the earliest on so she cannot attribute it to a lack of communication. He’d seemed bright enough not to arrive with any inexplicable assumptions and, initially, gave no indication he had. As far as she’s concerned, the first stage was fine. Both bodies performed exactly as planned. In fact, in every way as well as she’d hoped. He had also seemed happy enough. It was only afterwards things took a turn for the worse. She hadn’t intended to hurt his feelings. To be honest, she’s not even sure if she has. Well, obvious interpretations of knitted brows and the snatching-up of discarded clothing aside, how could she be? She is also without inclination to press. She has absolutely no interest in violating what is private, his feelings are his business alone. She just wishes he hadn’t presumed she possessed quite so many of her own. (pp. 53–54, Faber & Faber)
As the woman travels from city to city – alighting in Avignon, Prague, Oslo, Auckland and Austin – little hints of her backstory gradually begin to emerge. There are glimpses of an earlier relationship, once happy and contented, but now very much in the past. She envies other people’s optimism, their faith in a future that seems reasonable and alive, emotions she recalls experiencing herself some years earlier, only for this existence to shatter and disappear. The old life must remain where it belongs; otherwise it may well prove fatal, breaking her will and desire for self-protection.
She should and should not think of this. If the past comes in it will wring her neck. So, she prevails upon her memory to recollect it as though from far away. And it is far away. Now, very far away. (p. 71)
There is an unsentimental directness to the protagonist’s encounters with men, a refreshing lack of expectations or underlying emotions in these transient pairings. It is only during the final vignette in the book – a one-night-stand with a man in Austin – that any deeper feelings threaten to break through. As memories from the past are stirred and resurrected, the woman tries to distance herself from them, attempting to re-establish the barrier designed to prevent emotional involvement. There is no room in her life for impulse or attachment now. These notions are part of her earlier life, elements that should remain hidden or suppressed.
She is certain of the rightness of all of this. So, she ushers herself back towards the listlessness that has, for all these years, kept her in the manner which she wishes she preferred. Collected. Other side of the glass. But she liked his face. She liked his laugh and the weird way their bodies kept insisting on contact. This, however, does not alter the fact that the only place for impulse is in her past. She knows this. She has made it like that so everything occurring, after the old life stopped, would simply be an again. A kind of repeat. Nothing new. Pathetic really, when she thinks of it. If she allowed herself to, she might admit she’s grown tired of her own loneliness, which she really doesn’t want to have yet. Because it has come to be all I know. (pp. 124–125)
Running through the book is a strong sense of self-reflection, mostly stemming from the explorations of the protagonist’s inner thoughts, her hypotheses and rationalisations. It’s a style I found very compelling despite the degree of ambiguity in the narrative – for instance, the significance of the cities and the reasons for the individual visits are never explicitly revealed. Plus, the protagonist herself remains somewhat mysterious, almost tantalisingly out of reach. (By the end of the book, she is in her late forties, prompting questions about what may have happened in the intervening years.) This adds to the elusive feel of the novel, making it an intriguing, hypnotic read – one where the subject matter and literary style seem to be working together in perfect harmony.
McBride also excels at capturing the abstract nature of hotel rooms, liminal spaces that seem to be located between the boundaries of existence, enabling us to exist in a kind of alternate reality. They are places where we can adopt different personalities, act out our fantasies or simply step away from the pressures of life – for a day or two at least.
In summary, Strange Hotel is an immersive, enigmatic novel, one that explores themes of identity, self-reflection and some of our strategies for distancing ourselves from the past. I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone looking for an intriguing, somewhat abstract read.
Strange Hotel is published by Faber & Faber; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy.
This sounds almost the approach you’d find in a Japanese novel, enigmatic and without full resolution. Very appealing ,,,
That’s an interesting thought. I hadn’t considered it in that light before you mentioned it, but I can see where you’re coming from. Enigmatic is a good way of describing this book, for sure.
This sounds very intriguing. I like the idea of structuring the novel around five different settings that are all different yet somehow the same, and I’m always a fan of an abstract, slightly distanced read. Thank you for providing such an inspiring review!
You’re very welcome. I think you might like this one, particularly given your fondness for somewhat abstract reads. It’s not my usual type of book, but I was very impressed!
I have been really looking forward to reading this book – elusive and hypnotic is just my kind of thing. McBride seems very good particularly at conveying the inner thoughts of her characters. It was also on display in her last novel The Lesser Bohemians, another very immersive read which I had loved.
You’ll like this one, I think. It has that dreamlike, spectral quality that makes it feel slightly out of reach – elusive is a good word for it. For some reason, The Lesser Bohemians didn’t particularly appeal to me at the time, but I might go back and take another look at some point. Good to hear that you enjoyed it so much – that’s reassuring to know :)
Sounds intriguing, Jacqui. I didn’t get around to reading A Girl is a Half-formed Thing but this one sounds more appealing to me.
I fared a little better with A Girl when I switched to listening to it via the audiobook, partly because so much of the power of that novel seemed to stem from the rhythm of MacBride’s prose. By contrast, this felt much easier to read on the page – more accessible, so to speak.
I am intrigued by this, primarily by the chance to analyze the way in which the author adds distinguishing details of locale around the setting of each hotel room. Thanks, Jacqui!!
I can’t remember title now, more’s the pity, but there was a non-fiction book about life and love after breakups, that transcended the “self help” genre with some great vignettes. It reminds me of this, sharing the same implied context, of people who are still youthful and attractive enough to ENGAGE in one-night stands (unpaid for ones, anyway), and have the type of life that provides hotel room settings.
[Aside, at 61 years old, I have pretty much aged out of all this, and find the whole one-night-stand thing rather amusing. A fat, grumpy old man at a bar had the temerity to pronounce a friend and I, perfectly well dressed and wearing shoes, “OLD, EXPIRED, AND OVER” and asked us “why we were out so late.” We were at a friend’s band performance. We gave this Jamoke a good going over and had him removed form the bar for plain rudeness. Benefit of being “local” regulars. Another deluded young man asked me if “I was the bass player’s Mum.” LOLZ ]
First vignette was a woman who I believe was single and in the world of diplomacy, who engaged in various dalliances for a while, until she noticed at a dinner party that she had slept with several men at the same event! This jarred her into withdrawing for a bit from the sexual merry go round and re-emerging to seek a more meaningful relationship. Not sure if she found it.
The second vignette was even more evocative. A healthy mid-30’s man with the financial means set off on a world trip. One night, after a round of sights, lovers, food, and sensation in Southeast Asia, he sat on a late-night bus filled with local people, and caught a glimpse of his face in the bus window, surrounded by strangers. He was hit by an overwhelming hunger for depth, for connection of any sort. And returned home..
Thanks again Jacqui, and take care. Good health and prosperity to you!
Thanks, Maureen Sounds like an interesting book. Let me know if the title occurs to you at some point – it may well pop back into your head. As for your encounter with the grumpy guy at the bar, I’m glad you emerged from it unscathed! Take care. J
The main character sounds so well drawn. Portraying a lot about a person but leaving some enigma in the mix can be an effective technique. I like the quotation. It is both well written and seems like a realistic portrayal of how someone might think.
Yes, very effective. It made me wonder if there might be similarities with Rachel Cusk’s novel, Outline, particularly in terms of the central character also remaining somewhat elusive or out of reach.
I read A Girl is a Half formed thing, I enjoyed it and was challenged by it in equal measure. I was impressed with her use of language though. Having read that, I definitely wouldn’t expect a typical hotel novel from McBride. I seem to remember the narrator of that being very enigmatic, and introspective. This sounds like an evocative interesting novel.
Her use of language is so impressive. My main takeaway from A Girl – which I listened to in part via the audiobook — was the importance of the rhythm of the prose. So much of the impact of that novel seemed to be wrapped up in the delivery that it only seemed to come to life for me when I heard it being read aloud.
I had mixed views on A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, generally hailed as a masterpiece but which I found a little too relentlessly humourless. It’s not that I expected it to be a laugh a minute – it’s not remotely a comic novel after all – but I just found it a bit wearying after a while. Strong prose style though obviously.
Her second seemed more of the same so I skipped. This actually sounds more intriguing. I’ll bear it in mind.
I found this a lot easier to get into than A Girl – which might sound like an odd thing to say about a fairly abstract novel, but it definitely felt more accessible to me. I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on it if you ever decide to give it a go.
Lovely post Jacqui, Sounds very evocative and I often enjoy ambiguity in what I read. I’ve not read McBride but somehow think this might be a better starting place for me that A Girl is a Half Formed Thing.
Something tells me you would prefer this to A Girl; but then again, you’ve probably got more than enough books to keep you busy over at the Ramblings! :)
I really like the idea of this one, I love ambiguity and have enjoyed her previous books.
I think you”d like this, Cathy. Maybe one for a future Reading Ireland piece?
Definitely! If all is well she is coming to HomePlace in August.
Lovely. We’ll have to hope that we’re in a position to lift the restrictions on movements by then. x
I’m hopeful x
Great review Jacqui which saves me from reading this. I don’t think I can cope with an enigmatic self-absorbed protagonist right now.
Ha! Glad to be of service, Gert. I have a feeling that you would find this a somewhat frustrating read. ;)
I’ve really enjoyed McBride’s novels and her style seems to get more readable as she goes along! I was thinking from the quotes that she seemed to be getting less abstract – but still elusive – so its interesting from the comments that this seems to be the case. I’ll look forward to reading this.
I’ll be interested to see what you think of this compared to her others. She seems to be developing into a very interesting writer – certainly much more than a one-book sensation. :)
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Normally I’d be quite keen to read this but as I have both her previous novels and have yet to finish s page I think I’d better wait until I’ve read at least one of them! (I have seen a stage version of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing but I’m not sure that counts).
Funnily enough, I was thinking this might make a good choice for your book groups as it’s short yet sufficiently abstract to prompt quite a bit of discussion. But yes, read your other McBrides while you’re in lockdown. I’d be interested to hear how you get on with her.
I’ve got a thing about novels and stories set in hotels, their being liminal spaces as you’ve described. They surface often in Mavis Gallant’s stories (I think some in Christina Stead and Ali Smith too) and I think they introduce themes that simmer beneath the surface in a way that acts like a shorthand for writers. So even though I haven’t read anything of McBride’s since she won the Women’s Prize, this is one which might get me back into her. (She’s someone whose work I admire more than I enjoy it.)
Ah, yes. I have a copy of Ali Smith’s Hotel World somewhere! It’s been years since I read it, and much of the detail of the story has slipped from my mind, but I do recall it being rather disquieting. Maybe I’ll dig it out again if I run out of other reading material in the lockdown. As you say, there’s something about a hotel setting that feels otherworldly, a sort of holding area between the real and the imaginary.
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