Emily St. John Mandel rose to prominence with the extraordinary Station Eleven (which, given the current state of the world, is enjoying a resurgence on the best-seller lists), but her latest novel, The Glass Hotel (2020), is a very different kind of book.
The story begins with a young woman named Vincent disappearing from a ship, the Neptune Cumberland. In what has become Mandel’s signature style, the story eschews chronology to skip backwards and forwards in time, piecing together the events of Vincent’s life that lead her to those final moments aboard the Neptune Cumberland.
Skip backwards a few years and Vincent is a bartender at the prestigious Hotel Caiette on the northern tip of Vancouver Island. One night graffiti is discovered on the glass walls that reads, “Why don’t you swallow broken glass.” In the bar are Leon Prevant (whom eagle-eyed readers will recognise from Station Eleven) and Jonathan Alkaitis, a wealthy New York financier and the owner of the hotel. Also at the hotel that night is Vincent’s brother Paul, a business school drop-out working for the hotel as a night porter. These characters will find their fates inextricably linked as the story goes on.
After meeting Alkaitis that night, it is not long before Vincent becomes his wife — or trophy wife, to be more specific, and thus we enter the shady world of the Ponzi scheme. Based on the 2008 financial crisis, Mandel’s novel explores the idea of counter-lives: what would happen if we were to make different choices? What would Alkaitis’ life be like were he on a tropical beach, rather than in a prison cell?
Ghosts crop up throughout the novel, partly through these imagined counter-life scenarios, but also through characters’ memories, regrets and ill-fated choices. The concept of the tale of the financial crisis populated by such ghosts is both eerie and ingenious, and readers will find themselves quietly drawn in.
Just as Mandel managed to find beauty in the ravaged world of Station Eleven, so too does she find a lyrical dreaminess in financial fraud. Her writing is beautifully wrought, and though muted in tone, the characteristic puzzle-piece plot, jumping backwards and forwards throughout time, will have readers turning pages as though this is a much louder novel.
Though Station Eleven may seem like the book that captures our current moment in history, The Glass Hotel also explores what happens when lives are irrevocably altered. It makes for a poignant read indeed.