“It is the little things which make each life up in the end,” thinks the nameless female protagonist of Eimear McBride’s new novel. The accretion of detail, of nuance, of language are at the heart of McBride’s work. And Strange Hotel, her third book, is a powerful demonstration of her ability to marshal words to peerless effect.
McBride’s 2013 debut, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, set a template of sorts; a novel that followed the interior life of a young woman in an abusive family from childhood to early adulthood as she struggled with a terminally ill brother. It won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Desmond Elliott Prize, among others. She followed it with The Lesser Bohemians (2016), a tale of a young drama student and her much older actor lover in 1990s London, which took the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
Both were told with linguistic verve in a stream-of-consciousness style and, inevitably, drew comparisons with her compatriots James Joyce and Samuel Beckett (McBride was born in Liverpool but raised in Ireland), and sometimes — for variety’s sake — Virginia Woolf. She has acknowledged Joyce’s Ulysses as influential: “It taught me that a novel can be whatever you want it to be.”
But if Strange Hotel is to be likened to the work of any other writer, Ali Smith’s Hotel World (2001) is perhaps the most resonant. That novel was set in a hotel and built around the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Its foundation lay in the healing process after a traumatic death, and it traced the impact of the event on friends, family and bystanders.
McBride’s Strange Hotel, meanwhile, follows a single, nameless female protagonist from hotel room to hotel room, and traces the process of grieving through memory and the passage of time. As with her first two novels, sex is crucial as both a source of power and of extreme self-harm.
The novel begins with a long list of destinations that span the globe, some followed — without explanation — by an “x”: “London?; Paris x; St Petersburg; Moscow; Budapest x; Bratislava x . . . ”. And so on, before, finally, we’re in Avignon — “this is not her first time in this hotel but she had not expected to return.”
This first section is rich in suspense, confidently cut through with an absurd humour. Then just as suddenly as we swooped into the room, we’re off again: “Orford x; Manchester x; Edinburgh x; Dublin . . . ” before alighting on the balcony of a hotel room in Prague. Our heroine is now wrapped in a sheet, chain-smoking and pondering the drop to the slick cobbles below as she waits for that evening’s assignation to take the hint and leave.
Then on we go, “. . . New York; Sizewell; Swansea; Belfast; Pulford; Delhi; Jaipur . . . ”. McBride cleverly drip-feeds information, rounding out her character, probing her damaged self and exploring what might have caused her to be roaming the world’s hotels, engaging in an endless stream of one-night stands. What is she running from? What is she running to?
If I were to write out the novel’s plot, it would easily fit in a single sentence (I won’t; the novel’s suspense and emotional power comes from McBride’s control of those “little things”), but the simplicity of the tale belies the deep psychological complexity it explores.
Perhaps evoking the block-universe concept of time and space — that the present is no more or less real than the past or future — and echoing Einstein’s view that “the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion”, McBride’s fractured, fluid indirect style captures the newness of past events, constantly alive in the mind.
Yet where Einstein’s line was intended to offer consolation to the family of a friend who had died, McBride’s protagonist is on the other side of that consolation, mired in debate with “the critic in her head to whose scrutiny she must . . . submit”; regardless of the space or time she is inhabiting, she is locked in a tortured process of reminiscence and self-flagellating interrogation, one in which the past is constantly and exhaustingly relived.
The language is equally tortured — if exquisitely deployed: just see the careful balance of meaning and structure in a throwaway line such as “Leisure is ever, and entirely, preferable to rush.” The syntactical about-face keeps meaning at arm’s length; the point is delayed, as if our protagonist can’t fully face up to what needs to be addressed. And the character is self-aware enough to recognise that the tactic “serves the solitary purpose of keeping the world at the end of a very long sentence”.
That’s not to say that the novel is a challenging “experimental” read; it isn’t. Once inside the discursive thought process of this woman, her sadness, trauma, loneliness and grief come fully alive. She may be nameless, the rooms may be nondescript and the men in the bed beside her faceless and fleeting, but her interior world is truly a living and breathing thing.
Strange Hotel is a finely controlled, complex and emotionally absorbing novel that manages to burrow deep into the heart of something essential about the human experiences of love and loss. That’s quite an achievement in so short a work.
Strange Hotel, by Eimear McBride, Faber, RRP£12.99, 160 pages
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