The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel
Knowing that characters from this novel turn up in her latest Sea of Tranquility, I thought it best to read this one from 2020 first. As you’ll see from the collage above, I had treated myself to the indie bookshop numbered, signed edition with gorgeous spredges (sprayed edges) when it was first published, but somehow didn’t manage to read it until late May. (See how much catching up I have to do on whim-reading reviews!
This novel has three main protagonists: Vincent, the beautiful bartender; Jonathan Alkaitis, a financier who owns the hotel where she works; and Leon Prevant, a shipping executive. All three meet in the Hotel Caiette, an exclusive hotel only reachable by ferry from Vancouver Island – the kind of place you retreat to – for whatever reason.
“Our guests in Caiette want to come to the wilderness, but they don’t want to be in the wilderness. They just want to look at it, ideally through the window of a luxury hotel. They want to be wilderness-adjacent.”
Still, the island is where Vincent and her brother Paul grew up, and both gravitate back to it for different reasons, having previously escaped to Toronto.
Alkaitis is visiting his hotel, where Prevant is also staying. In Vincent, he’ll see the perfect woman to have on his arm: in Prevant, he sees a mark, an ‘investor’ into his fund – which will turn out to be a Ponzi scheme (an illegal scheme where the investors’ returns come from the money invested by the next tier of marks below them).
We follow Vincent primarily through her ultimately hollow relationship as a trophy wife to Alkaitis who is largely anaesthetized to the world around him, effectively becoming a nomad – but a very rich one!
“You know what I’ve learned about money? I was trying to figure out why my life felt more or less the same in Singapore as it did in London, and that’s when I realized that money is its own country.”
The thing about Ponzi schemes is that as with pyramid selling, they require more and more investors at the bottom and when people decide to withdraw their investments, it skews everything. Alkaitis’ scheme was always going to fail – it’s a matter of when. Only a few are in the know about his secret company managed by just a few trusted employees in the backroom and his sister Claire who only suspects what the others know.
“Everything’s contracting,” she said, “I heard you speaking with Enrico last week, and you said you were losing investors, not gaining them.”
“You look tired, Claire.”
“because I couldn’t sleep last night, thinking about this.”
“Claire, honey, I know what I’m doing.”
“No, I know, I’m just saying, the optics of the thing, the timing of it–.”
“Right,” he said. “The optics,” He blinked.
That word, ‘optics’, makes me shudder. Gone are the days when it mostly referred to the drinks measure dispensers fixed to upended spirits bottles in pubs!
The scheme goes up in smoke, and Vincent has to escape and make herself scarce. So she goes to work as a chef on a cargo ship, of the line managed by Prevant. As for Alkaitis, or Vincent’s onward journey, I shall say no more.
Mandel is one of those few Western authors I’ve so far read who is capable of writing in that languid and dreamy, slightly aloof style which remains full of drama, like my favourite Japanese authors (Ozawa, and most recently Onda). In the sections on board ship, there were echoes for me of Smilla’s voyage on an icebreaker in Peter Høeg’s wonderful novel too, although with a different kind of drama for Vincent.
This is a multi-layered, beautifully plotted novel, that continually links back to itself, as its nomads travel the world, the Glass Hotel providing anchorage – for a while at least. If you loved Station Eleven, you’ll love this novel; if you’re not a fan of dystopias, this is a super place to start with Mandel.
Source: Own copy. BUY the paperback at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link. (Picador, 301 pages)