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Hotel World is a short
intriguing book from 2002 by Scottish writer Ali Smith, who more recently wrote
The Accidental (reviewed in Metapsychology
10:10). I listened to the unabridged audiobook twice, because I was quite
confused after the first listen, and Helen Lederer's performance of Smith's
text was so pleasing.
The book consists of five women
telling their stories, although only the first and last are told in the first
person, and the others are told in the third person by an impersonal narrator
who knows everything. The central event of the book is the death of
19-year-old Sara, who worked at Global Hotel. Sara explains that she climbed
into a dumbwaiter in a hotel room and was not expecting it to plummet to the
basement. Now she is dead, and she is finding it difficult to remember what it
was like to be alive and experience the world. She visits her own corpse in
its grave and asks about her past, but her corpse tells her to go away.
Outside the hotel, a homeless girl Else begs on the street, and as her story
unfolds, we come to understand how she came to be homeless. Then the
perspective shifts to Lise, who used to work at the hotel reception and is now
suffering from a mysterious debilitating condition, and is also getting used to
her condition. The least appealing character is Penny, a writer who works for
a newspaper, and is looking for a story. She manipulates the people around her
and lies compulsively, showing no comprehension of the people she interviews.
Finally, Clare, Sara's younger sister, recalls her memories of Sara's prowess
as a swimmer, and visits the hotel to see where her sister died.
On the second read, the connections
between the five women become clearer, and Smith's skill with words becomes
even more impressive. The second reading also gives you time to reflect more
on what is going on in the book, why Smith uses these five perspectives, and
why the book is titled "World Hotel." It is a challenging read in
many ways. For example, it is a far more fragmented book than The Lovely
Bones by Alice Sebold (reviewed in Metapsychology
6:52) which was told from the perspective of a dead girl. Sebold's imaginative
feat was to show how dead people might miss their former lives, as a way of
highlighting grief and loss. Smith's approach, much more conversational and
disjointed, shifting back and forth in time even within each person's
narrative, places the reader in a much more difficult position. You cannot
just identify with the dead person or the grieving relatives, and vicariously
live through some kind of resolution of mourning by getting through to the end
of the novel. There's not enough unity to the book to allow the reader this
luxury, and the spiky style does not invite such sympathetic feelings. That's
not to say that Hotel World lacks emotional depth: there are brief
moments that can be very saddening, funny, surprising, and sweet. But the
stream of consciousness is constantly on the move, and does not allow you to
Another reviewer compared Smith to
Virginia Woolf, and that may be a helpful reference point, but I was reminded
of Samuel Beckett's absurdist monologues in his one-person plays and novels.
With restless and repetitive prose, Smith combines pathos with humor, and
through the speaking of the characters, you are left with an altered view of
life without being able to sum it up in a thesis. Very impressive.
© 2006 Christian Perring. All
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of
the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at
Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online
Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine,
psychiatry and psychology.