Review: The Glass Hotel - Emily St. John Mandel
Genre: Literary Fiction
Published: Pan MacMillan, April 2020
My Rating: 5/5 stars
"There are so many ways to haunt a person, or a life"
Ever since its announcement back in 2019, The Glass Hotel has been one of my most anticipated novels of 2020. As the successor to Station Eleven, one of my top 3 all-time favourite novels, it was also doomed from the start. I was inevitably going to compare the two, one of them was going to come up short and there was going to be disappointment either way. Somehow, none of that happened. Emily St. John Mandel did something extraordinary here: she wrote something different enough to be its own entity, free of comparison, yet similar enough in its core qualities that her audience can love both equally. If you think that sounds vague: please bear with me, this is going to make sense in a moment…
Story: The story of The Glass Hotel starts off on a seemingly unremarkable night in the titular hotel, a few years before the start of the financial crisis of 2008. The rich hotel owner and investment protegee Jonathan Alkaitis makes an offer to the young bartending woman Vincent, which throws her into a world she’s never known before. Vincent's half-brother, Paul, scrawls a note on the windowed wall of the hotel: "Why don't you swallow broken glass". Hotel guest Leon Prevant, executive of a shipping company, sees the message and is shaken to the core, even though it wasn’t meant for him… We follow these characters, and the way their lives come together and drift apart over the following years, spinning a tale of greed, financial- and moral ruin, regrets for what might have been and the haunting ghosts of the past.
I could talk for hours about everything this book does just perfect. The depth of the characters, the superb writing style… The way the narrative meanders like a river at times, but pulls together to a perfect circle in the end. The wonderful, nonintrusive way the counterlife is interwoven into reality… Yet none of that capture that “St. John Mandel-signature”: that thing or feeling she does better than anyone else. That feeling is the quiet surrounding disaster. Whether it be the 2008 financial crisis or the fictional pandemic of Station Eleven, both are disaster novels at their core. Yet instead of falling prey to the sensationalism of collapsing buildings or bankers hurling themselves to their deaths from office windows, we narrow in on those silent moments of contemplation among them. Everybody who’s ever experienced personal tragedy will recognize these moments, where disaster isn’t a storm but a whisper. Where you find yourself sort of desensitizing and asking how it’s possible that the world is still turning while everything is falling apart. The Glass Hotel and Station Eleven are two sides of that same coin; different but equal, and linked by those silent moments. Where Station Eleven focussed more on the strange beauty in those moments, The Glass Hotel lingers on the despair and insecurity, and the haunting realisation that things will never be as they used to be. The fact that the protagonists are at times literally haunted by figments of their past beautifully translates that. Despite the subjectmatter, Station Eleven felt like the lighter novel of the two, and after finishing The Glass Hotel I was left feeling solemn but in the best way possible.
If you were to ask me to pick a favourite book by this author, I’d have to go with Station Eleven, because I adored that undertone of hope. If you ask me to pick her best book, I couldn’t give you an answer. My preference is purely personal to my experiences. In a counterlife, The Glass Hotel might have been my all-time favourite book. In this life however, I’m glad I don’t have to choose, and can simply celebrate that Emily St. John Mandel proudly holds her place as one the best authors of her time, in my eyes.
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