Beautifully constructed and a marvellous reading experience (@picadorbooks)

The Glass Hotel. A Novel - Emily St. John Mandel

Thanks to NetGalley and to Picador for providing me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review. Having read St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven almost six years ago, I jumped at the opportunity to read this one. And although the story is quite different, I loved it as well.

Despite the differences between the two novels (Station Eleven was set around and after a virus pandemic that decimated the population and caused major changes to civilization), there are some commonalities. In her new novel, there is also a major event that although not as disastrous and all-encompassing as the pandemic, it has a devastating effect on the lives of all involved, from Jonathan Alkaitis (a character inspired by Bernard Madoff), to the people working at a hotel he owned, and even his receptionist. The collapse of his Ponzi scheme works as an axis around which the rest of the plot and the elements of the story spin, although it is far from evident how all the fragments fit in together when we start reading the novel.

The formal structure of the novel feels almost magical in its perfection. It begins with the end and yes… it ends going back to the beginning, but we get three parts, changes in time frames (always marked, so it does not cause confusion) from the 1950s up to the near future, many of the characters have “before” and “after” lives, and some even create imaginary lives to cope with their dire situation, so at times it seems as if it would be impossible to pull it all together, but the author manages, and it is a delight to follow the clues and be taken in, sometimes, quite unexpected directions. The book is not a thriller per se, but there are plenty of mysteries, lots of secrets, and unexplained events, and all the individual stories are more than interesting enough in their own right to keep us reading.

There are different voices and different narrators, almost as many as characters. Most of the chapters are narrated in the third person, but from only one of the characters point of view at a time, and although at first we don’t know how they are related to each other, there is no confusion as to who is thinking what or what story we are following. There are chapters in the first person, at the very beginning and at the very end of the novel, in a style reminiscent of stream of consciousness, and also chapters that correspond to the chorus of the employees working with Alkaitis in his fraudulent investment company, where we get information about several characters at once. There are many settings, but I think the island and the Glass Hotel of the title work particularly well and function as a focal point, as a hub where many of the players meet and take on paths that will mark their lives forever. The writing is beautiful, compelling, reflective, lyrical, multifaceted, evocative, and a joy to read.

As I mentioned before, the characters are all interesting, although perhaps Alkaitis and his story will sound more familiar than most of the rest. But even he has something that makes him human and easier to empathise with than readers would expect.  Like all the rest of the characters, he has doubts, human weaknesses, he is uncertain, he loved his brother and his first wife, and he lost them both. And he is loyal after his own fashion. All the characters, even those who have nothing in common with us, have frailties and emotions we easily recognise. We might not like them, but we do understand them and can easily put ourselves in their shoes. The description mentions a few of the characters, and there are many more, but I won’t go into too much detail, because as I’ve said, this is a book to be discovered and enjoyed slowly, as it unfolds as we read. If I had to choose one, it would probably be Vincent, a girl who experiences loss at a very early age and tries many different lives for size, but all of the characters have moments of clarity, thoughts, or questions that have made me gasp, nod, or stop and think.

It’s been a long time since I read Station Eleven, but there are nudges towards it in this novel (there is a mention of a virus, and some of the characters of the previous book make brief appearances in this one), and there is no denying the similarities in the way the story is told and in the author’s style of writing. Perhaps the other book is open to a more hopeful and optimistic reading, while this one is more contemplative and personal, but I’d be hard pushed to choose a favourite (and I am convinced that I must reread Station Eleven again).

As usual, I’d recommend checking a sample of the book first, but readers must be aware that the beginning is written in quite a different style to the rest of the book, so keep reading. Ah, and there is a supernatural element in the story (I hesitate to call it magical realism, as it is a very specific and it makes perfect sense), in case you’re wondering.

It’s particularly difficult to choose a few quotes, but I’ll try:

“You know what I’ve learned about money? I was trying to figure out why my life felt more or less the same in Singapore as it did in London, and that’s when I realized that money is its own country.”

“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. If you’ve never been without, then you won’t understand the profundity of this, how absolutely this changes your life.”

“If another memo could possibly be sent out, this one specific to smokers: You cannot be both an unwashed bohemian and Cary Grant. Your elegant cigarette moves are hopelessly undermined by your undershirt and your dirty hair. The combination is not particularly interesting.”

“It’s possible to both know and not know something.”

A great novel that looks at truth, reality, identity, the tales and lies we tell ourselves, the nature of memory, and makes us question our priorities. Beautifully written, structurally fascinating and with engaging characters, I recommend it to lovers of literary fiction who don’t mind investing some time in a story and also, of course, to fans of the author.