Emily St. John Mandel – The Glass Hotel

While I loved Station Eleven, I was cautious about reading this because I worried that Mandel’s post-apocalyptic elegy was a one-off. A friend of mine who had gone from that to the author’s earlier books had more or less confirmed my suspicions. As I’ve said before, SF by people who don’t normally write it is usually bad, and Station Eleven was really an exception.

And since I knew anyway that The Glass Hotel wasn’t another pass at the genre, and was more of a straightforward literary novel, I wasn’t in a hurry to pick it up.

But here we are. It was 99p on the Kindle store, and I can never resist a bargain.

You could say that The Glass Hotel takes place in a parallel universe (to Station Eleven), which means it is a genre novel; there are a couple of characters in this who have slipped through, and there is passing mention of the Georgia Flu, but other than that this is a novel that stands alone, and you don’t need to have read Station Eleven.

If you think back to before Covid times, you may recall the last time the world edged towards disaster and capitalism almost collapsed. This is the milieu of The Glass Hotel: that era of dodgy financial instruments, lost savings and scandals, along with an economic crash and associated fallout. People whose fortunes are built on smoke and illusion, who live in glass houses and shouldn’t throw stones. Alongside this, Mandel weaves a narrative about dysfunctional families, estranged siblings, guilt, friendship, theft, ghosts, and the occasional bit of vandalism. What the vandalism has to do with the other things might be interesting, or it might not.

But you don’t come to Mandel for the plot details. You come for the tone, the narrative technique, her easy way with prolepsis and analepsis, her fluidly shifting viewpoints, her deft changes of tense and perspective. In this, she reminds me of John Le Carré: another great stylist and under-rated writer. Mandel can take you back and forth in time with ease, and can switch focal character and location so subtly that you barely notice, except that someone who just ran away to sea suddenly turns up in another scene, in flashback.

So I enjoyed this, is what I’m saying, and I’m glad I finally picked it up. As of today, it is still 99p on the ol’ Kindle, which makes it an essential download.

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