Ever had that dream where you’re tumbling, falling towards impending doom? Sarah Wilby has, and when she tells us about her all too real fall, it’s not from this side of the grave. It’s also the sensation that a reader of Smith’s latest novel experiences, rushing through her world, on an often exhilarating ride towards the end, expecting a coup de grace of a twist. Yet – and this is the real twist – it never comes; you’re simply served it up at the beginning. Sarah died in a prank climbing into a dumb waiter on the sixth floor of the Global Hotel. This leaves us to follow Sarah’s lingering ghost as she demands answers from her eyeless rotting corpse, and visits her grieving suburban family. Hardest hit, her sister has taken to the street outside the Global, obsessed with her sister’s ill-fated fall.
It is through this link that Smith connects her narrative to fellow street-squatter, Else, and leads us inside the hotel doors to the magnanimous Lise at reception and upstairs to the outsider, a weary hack called Penny. Fittingly, for a novel set in a location full of transient and starkly different people, Hotel World‘s characters are from backgrounds chasms apart, and offer Smith an opportunity to display her talent for voices. Sarah’s fading ghost is losing a grip on her vocabulary, while Else’s cough-wracked mouth no longer bothers with vowels, simply asking indifferent pedestrians if they’ll “spr sm chn?”. Numb with boredom, Lise finds herself stuck in her Can-I-Help-You pitter-patter, while Penny, a room away from the fatal dumb waiter, searches for superlative synonyms to spice up her clichèd review.
The one uniting factor that brings together these individual threads is not so much the hotel or Sarah’s death, as the haunting, dream-like note Smith has imbued into every line. Even the length of her clipped sentences adds an ethereal quality to the ensemble’s monologues. Suitably then, this is a tale of women on society (and life’s) meagre margins, ekeing out their unsatisfying and difficult lives. Hotel World‘s main problem is a simple narrative one. Laying (almost) all her cards down at the opening leaves the already flimsy plot oddly slack and lacking in tension. But Smith’s fans – including myself – would argue that her style is the book’s biggest source of redemption.
Whether it’s the James Joyce-like experiments in conveying sounds or dispensing with punctuation for idiomatic effect, Smith revels in exploring the stylistic boundaries the novel-form offers her. Her ear is also a refreshingly non-literary one – proverbial, oral and hackneyed – and one that brings her hotel denizens vividly to life. It perfectly complements her eye for four-line vignettes of life, snapshots of people on their way to work, people going about their everyday tasks. Still, for all the loveliness of its prose, Hotel World sadly leaves more of a faint imprint than the resounding impact it should have.
Reviewed by Adam Vaughan