Book Review: The Glass Hotel

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“What kept her in the kingdom [of money] 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.”

The most important thing to say about The Glass Hotel is that it was a pleasure to read. The characters are fully formed and complex, doused with a realism that keeps the reader interested in their fates. They each have a purpose in the unfolding plot that adds nuance and depth. There are many inter-relationships and passing cross-references to parse, enabling a consideration of varying perceptions. I enjoyed the author’s habit of dropping titbits from the future as the timeline moved back and forth across decades. This served to provoke curiosity in how the character would reach the future development in their life trajectory.

What I wasn’t so impressed with was the denouement. By choosing to open the story with a brief reveal of the ultimate fate of a key character, I was left disappointed when the detail was added and a conclusion built. Having savoured the skill with which the author writes, I turned the final page and felt dissatisfied. Perhaps I was simply unwilling to go with the author’s suggestion of possibilities.

The glass hotel itself is a luxury destination on a remote peninsula in Canada, where the moneyed may relax and feel detached from their busy lives. It is here that Jonathan – who specialises in investments – meets Vincent, a bartender who grew up nearby. Their families, friends and business associates form the core of the pool of characters.

The story is set between 1958 and 2029, with certain years particularly eventful. How to make money, and why it is required, is a recurring theme. The focus is on those who were not born into wealth so had to find a way to acquire what they needed – to both survive and then live a life aspired to. There are explorations of the morality of choices made – how characters justify their actions, if only to themselves.

Vincent has an older half-brother, Paul, who harbours ambitions to be a composer and musician. He is also a drug addict, always resenting that Vincent got to live with their father. The dynamic between these two as they reach adulthood offers a fine study on the psychology of family.

Jonathan’s first wife – his confidante and mother of their daughter – dies of cancer. He is the owner of the glass hotel and visits regularly, seeking investors. His life revolves around his business although he enjoys his wealth, using it as a symbol of his success. When he takes on a much younger woman to be his new wife, it is mutually beneficial but not a love match.

Over the decades, the story follows several of Jonathan’s investors, some of whom regard him as a friend. The author touches on their lives lightly but always adding to development. These artists and businessmen rarely consider the financial cushion on which the rest of what they do has been built.

Money can be made and also lost, the impact of which inevitably varies. Certain characters need the respect they believe financial success accords them. Others find a way to move forward, but always with thoughts of what might have been. There is anger and also bewilderment.

Although the plot is engaging and offers much to mull over, this is a character driven story. Perceived success is depicted as a veneer; life as a state of flux, relationships mostly a masquerade. Roles played and compromises made affect self-esteem.

The writing is a master class in building anticipation, the structure aiding progression at an assured pace. The various characters may at first glance appear vanilla but by delving deeper into their psyches they offer up dilemmas more widely representative.

Any Cop?: I may not have felt satisfied by the ending, yet this was still a story well worth reading. Its complex themes never detract from the ease of engagement. A lingering thought provoking tale in myriad ways.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Station Eleven

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, opens with the death of a famous actor, Arthur Leander, while on stage playing King Lear. The theatre is in Toronto and outside a snowstorm is approaching. Witnesses to the actor’s collapse, along with those close to them, form the cast of characters the story will swirl around as it moves backwards and forwards along a timeline spanning several decades. Arthur’s deathday is also the day the Georgia Flu arrives in North America, carried in by passengers traversing the world by aircraft. The known and accepted modern world is about to radically change.

Shakespeare lived in a London coping with recurring outbreaks of plague. The virulent illness that wipes out most of the population in the contemporary setting of this tale is even more devastating. Survivors are few and basic infrastructure soon fails. Systems taken for granted – tap water, electricity, mechanised transport, medication, long distance communication – are no longer available. Food must be grown or hunted locally. Items such as clothing and weapons are scavenged from the remnants of the lost civilisation.

Twenty years later a company of musicians and players travels between small communities in the Great Lakes area providing entertainment – mostly classical music and Shakespearean plays. Their mantra is ‘survival is insufficient’ and they are usually welcomed as a distraction from the limited locality people now inhabit to stay safe. The dangers inherent in the early years, after the pandemic decimated North America’s population, have largely receded. Still, though, there are those who will kill to attain their own skewed agenda. Amongst them is the Prophet whose acolytes believe their names were inscribed in the Book of Life, and that those who died were being punished for their sins. This is not the only cult in the slowly recovering territory.

When the travelling players encounter the Prophet they do not heed the warnings until it is too late to avoid the effects of falling under his gaze.

The backstories to key characters are presented, weaving them together. Celebrity and success are explored alongside ambition and various relationships. An underlying theme is one of regret when one’s actions and life trajectory are considered with hindsight. What turns out to be important may not be that which demanded so much time and effort.

Although quite obviously dystopian, I found the story uplifting. Those living in the small communities mostly help each other, working for the common good. There are dislikes and transgressions – people remain flawed and some do terrible things. With man’s footprint on earth limited, however, nature thrives amongst the ruins of his former creations.

The writing is fluid and compelling. Moments of reflection and tension are well balanced, easily maintaining reader engagement. The story is immersive and consistent, with pleasing touches such as the recurring comic book motif. The denouement pulls key threads together whilst allowing for ongoing speculation.

With a more literary bent than many novels in the genre this could appeal to those who normally eschew fantasy fiction. I found it an enjoyable and satisfying read.

Station Eleven is published by Picador.

My copy of this book was given to me by my daughter.