The Glass Hotel: A modern-day ghost story

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

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.

Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel

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.

Published in 2020. From the award-winning author of Station Eleven, an exhilarating novel set at the glittering intersection of two seemingly disparate events—the exposure of a massive criminal enterprise and the mysterious disappearance of a woman from a ship at sea. Vincent is a bartender at the Hotel Caiette, a five-star lodging on the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island. On the night she meets Jonathan Alkaitis, a hooded figure scrawls a message on the lobby’s glass wall: Why don’t you swallow broken glass. High above Manhattan, a greater crime is committed: Alkaitis’s billion-dollar business is really nothing more than a game of smoke and mirrors. When his scheme collapses, it obliterates countless fortunes and devastates lives. Vincent, who had been posing as Jonathan’s wife, walks away into the night. Years later, a victim of the fraud is hired to investigate a strange occurrence: a woman has seemingly vanished from the deck of a container ship between ports of call. In this captivating story of crisis and survival, Emily St. John Mandel takes readers through often hidden landscapes: campgrounds for the near-homeless, underground electronica clubs, service in luxury hotels, and life in a federal prison. Rife with unexpected beauty, The Glass Hotel is a captivating portrait of greed and guilt, love and delusion, ghosts and unintended consequences, and the infinite ways we search for meaning in our lives.

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RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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One comment

  1. This was already on my list. Now more than ever!

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