A Review of Emily St. John Mandel’s “The Glass Hotel”
The Great Recession’s Ghost Story?
Reading Emily St. John Mandel in 2020 can be a strange experience. Her previous novel (and breakout hit), Station Eleven, is about a pandemic that nearly wipes out all human habitation on earth. Too literary to be science-fiction and too science-fiction to be literary, the novel enters a zone this year of being particularly prescient and predictive. Station Eleven has also gone on to influence countless knock-offs. Tyrell Johnson’s The Wolves of Winter goes so far as to borrow Station Eleven’s image of people travelling by car with horses attached to said vehicles. This makes St. John Mandel’s new novel a little perplexing in a way because it is not about the future (or the future present), but is instead about the past (or the past present). The Glass Hotel is essentially a novel about the Great Recession of 2008 and, at its heart, features a fictionalized version of the Ponzi scheme that Bernard Madoff profited from (until he was arrested and no longer did).
Once again, and as I have already alluded to, St. John Mandel might be saying something about our present condition with this book — although probably unexpectedly — because, as I write these words, the health crisis of COVID-19 seems to be on the brink of receding in Ontario, Canada, where I write, and we’ve only just begun to understand the financial toll that the virus has wrought. In a sense, looking back to the last great financial crisis in history might just be the most visionary thing a writer could do in this environment. However, what’s surprising about The Glass Hotel is that it is a book about certain things, but at the same time — and paradoxically — isn’t about those things. Some may consider this novel to be a ghost story, when it isn’t. It’s also a story about family ties, when it isn’t. It’s a story about moral compromise, when it isn’t.
The reason it can and cannot be these things at the same time is because St. John Mandel borrows the trick from Station Eleven of jumping around the narrative temporarily. This means that certain elements of the plot take place at certain points of the book, and the spotlight is constantly shifting on what this book is trying to be. It is a story, then, about the relationship of Vincent Smith (an unusual name for a female character) and her half-brother Paul, but Paul only appears during the first and last chapters of the book. It is a story, then, of more compromise, but this only rears its head during certain sections of the book. And as for the ghosts? Only by the end will you know.
Usually, when I write these book reviews, I give a paragraph or so’s synopsis of the book early on. It’s a stylistic tick of mine that has solidified with each review that I do. I don’t think I can do that with The Glass Hotel. The reason? Because the narrative jumps around all over the place from the late 1990s to circa 2018, giving away any kind of synopsis threatens to give away a puzzle piece of the story. The Glass Hotel is a series of vignettes or short stories patched together expertly to link together and resolve themselves as parts of the story are being told. (You will have “a-ha” moments at throwaway bits of text, for one thing.) To take away from this kind of illusion puts the enjoyment of the book at risk, because this is a novel that is meant to be deduced as it goes along rather than read linearly.
What I can say is that The Glass Hotel might be the very best book that I’ve read in quite some time — in part because it nails the present condition (upon publication) so masterfully and in part because it is just so darn enjoyable. What makes the book are its characters. Even the most morally deficient characters have some level of likability — which makes their crimes all the more believable — and they all have more than one dimension or side to them. We can understand, then, when Vincent makes certain life choices because we have a piece of understanding as to what already is driving her and makes her tick — an escape from where she is coming from, full of poverty and death. But I hope that I’m not saying too much here.
Essentially, The Glass Hotel is one of those books that work best the less you know about it before you crack open the cover for the first time. If I’m being deliberately vague here, it is because anything that could be said about it is a possible spoiler waiting to happen. To that end, I would just recommend putting this review down and going out and reading the book — I doubt that any disappointment will occur. This is an easier book to slip into than the magnum opus that was Station Eleven, which I had to start reading twice (true story) as I found the opening to that work to be a bit convoluted. With The Glass Hotel, Emily St. John Mandel shows again that she is a precious craftsman of words, creating a vivid and exhilarating story that is hard to put down. What this story really is about, I’m not sure, but that’s what makes it all the more crafty. I don’t know about you, but I think I have a new Canadian favourite writer, and Emily St. John Mandel shows her flair and writing chops with this book and the ability to make age old true stories feel fresh and vibrant all over again. This is the work of a superlative master, and I can’t wait to hear what more she will have to say about the present by either looking darkly to the future or the past as she has so masterfully with her two most recent novels. The Glass Hotel is a must-read, and what more needs to be said?
Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel was published by various publishers worldwide on March 24, 2020.
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