Hotel Arcadia, by Sunny Singh, is a work of discernment and contrasts. Set largely within the sterile opulence of a luxury hotel in an unnamed city it tells the tale of war photographer Sam and hotel manager Abhi who are caught up in a siege when a group of terrorists storm the building killing many of the staff and residents. As the country’s armed forces gather outside to deal with a volatile situation these two hunker down in the relative safety of their respective rooms building up a rapport over the telephone. Although their lives are very different it turns out that they have much in common.
Sam is well used to danger having spent many years touring conflict zones around the world to photograph the dead. Initially she views the unexpected mayhem of the hotel in which she had hoped to anonymously unwind as just another assignment. She leaves her room to explore and capture the images which have become her life’s work. However, as her empathy with Abhi penetrates her carefully constructed protective veneer she chooses to take a risk that could be her undoing.
The story takes us back to other assignments and to how Sam came to follow this macabre career. She is strong and resilient but damaged, feeling misunderstood and rejected by those she has loved. She has little time for romance seeking out men for her satisfaction rather than love.
‘happy love stories are only so because they end with the first consummation. Those aren’t really love stories but rather tales of chase, of gratification delayed’
She shields herself from the bloody gruesomeness surrounding her photography by capturing the peace and aesthetic beauty of the dead. She rarely photographs the living who still embody the terror that has befallen them. Her defense against the horrors that surround her requires that she should never become involved.
Abhi was raised in a loving home, a quiet child who appeared to happily follow where his lively brother led. Their father was a much decorated soldier who expected his sons to follow him into the military. When Abhi secretly arranged to go to a university it was regarded as a betrayal. Abhi has not spoken to his father since.
He enjoys the life that he has carved for himself in the hotel and had hoped to find love with one of the regular guests with whom he had become intimate. As he struggles to carry out his duties in the aftermath of the attack he must deal with the knowledge that his lover was likely in a bar where the terrorists have rampaged. It is possible that his lover is dead.
The writing is evocative and powerful. The reader feels the heat, smells the fear, experiences the beauty which remains despite the gruesome scars that war cuts through lives. The author avoids cliches, building characters with the flaws and hurts that life inflicts. By remaining vague about exactly where the hotel is situated, by not dwelling on local styles of dress, preconceptions are avoided. This is a story about people, not race.
I loved the character of Sam. She was atypical of females in literature seeming true to life with her suppressed hurt and determination to survive. When she encounters a living child among the dead she shows humanity but does not suddenly revert to some societally expected maternal type. She is a woman but does not allow her sex to define her.
Abhi is just as strong. A male hero who shows courage and compassion without having to leave the office from where he can be the most use to survivors. He is refreshingly different to the all action heroes beloved of so many fiction writers. He came across as believably real.
This story is of two disparate lives drawn together in a crisis. It explores familial and societal expectations and the profound effects these can have. It looks at loss, the transience of memory, the comfort of mementos. It contains an undercurrent replete with anger and defiance against a society schooled in archetypes
It is rare for any book to move me to tears. That this one did so, in the best possible way, highlights the power of the story and the quality of the writing throughout. The plot is fast moving and compelling. It shows that the hardest battles are those we fight with ourselves.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quartet Books.