Her previous novel, Station Eleven, was a big hit critically and commerically so this is keenly awaited. Unlike Station Eleven it's not dystopian or post-apocalyptic but does revolve around an enormous, life-changing event; the collapse of a massive Ponzi scheme in New York in 2008 . This shattering event links the lives of a disparate cast of characters and Mandel's gorgeous prose moves back and forth in time, tracing their stories pre and post crash. The pace is slow, almost dream-like, but this is ambitious, imaginative and highly recommended.
One of the triumphs of the book, then, is that the reading experience isn’t heavied by concept. At times the many structural divisions-titled sections within chapters, chapters within parts, seem to be a map for the writer more than the reader, but generally the scaffolding supports the spectacle without obscuring it. It reads evenly and the gaps feel intentional; Paul disappears for much of the story, but this is justified by theme and structure, the sensation of circling forward and back. Mandel’s prose is restrained, beautiful for its observation and precision rather than its flourish. The style prevents the larger-than-life ideas from falling off balance.
Mandel writes beautifully, saying so much with such economy, and she makes a complicated plot involving so many faces and places feel effortless. For a story so interested in morality, it never moralises: the crimes of its characters are not politicised nor used for some higher purpose, but presented as experiments in human action. Many of its threads are left untied, but somehow this is never unsatisfying: instead, the fates of those characters become benign ghosts of your own, ensuring Mandel’s extraordinary novel haunts long after you’ve finished it.
Above all, Mandel is a terrific storyteller, skilfully manipulating timelines, brandishing coincidence with a conjurer’s flourish, pulling disparate storylines out of the same hat. A word of warning, though. When you’ve finished oohing and aahing, there may not be all that much that stays with you. Certainly not the prose, which is never very exciting. The Glass Hotel is a plot- and concept-driven, highly visual novel that would work just as well on screen. That doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable — but you just might find yourself wondering why you’re reading it rather than watching it.
Unfolding across multiple time zones, this ghostly novel revolves around a Ponzi scheme run by Jonathan Alkaitis, the owner of the titular, neatly metaphorical glass hotel in the wilderness on Vancouver Island. It’s there that he meets and then fake-marries a young bartender, Vincent. Vincent and Alkaitis – who, we know from the start, will respectively drown and die in prison – are the novel’s centre of gravity, though Mandel elegantly marshals other characters on the edge of this black hole, like Vincent’s recovering addict brother and Alkaitis’s victims.
The Hotel Caiette, nicknamed the Glass Hotel, is not The Overlook from The Shining. It is rather more frightening than that. There is a phrase in fraud prevention – if it looks too good to be true then it’s probably not true. In the literary world, if it looks too true to be real then it’s a great work of fiction. St John Mandel is the real real, psychologically astute, morally wise and all done in singingly beautiful prose.
The Glass Hotel of the title is a luxury destination, remote in the wilderness of Vancouver Island, that links many of these characters; the creepiness of the hotel, surrounded by dark water and rustling forest, is perhaps the most conventional thing about this novel. Throughout the book people see ghosts and visions, but Mandel never indulges fully in the supernatural; instead, it’s a unique rumination on guilt, grief and regret.
With its shattered narrative, the joys of The Glass Hotel are participatory: piecing together the connections and intersections of Mandel’s human cartography, a treasure map ripped to pieces. But it is as a spectral sequel to Station Eleven that The Glass Hotel stumbles into poignance, as pre-pandemic fiction. All contemporary novels are now pre-pandemic novels – Covid-19 has scored a line across our culture – but what Mandel captures is the last blissful gasp of complacency, a knowing portrait of the end of unknowing. It’s the world we inhabited mere weeks ago, and it still feels so tantalisingly close; our ache for it still too raw to be described as nostalgia. “Do you find yourself sort of secretly hoping that civilisation collapses ... Just so that something will happen?” a friend asks Vincent. Oh, for the freedom of that kind of reckless yearning.
No one comes through unscathed and the comeuppances are unfairly and unevenly handed out. Everyone seems to be trying to escape, on the run, but without finding refuge or solace. Eventually, the fractured memories and narratives come together through the conceit of all these lives flashing before the eyes of someone drowning. It’s chilling stuff. But the writer is teasing us too — one whodunnit is solved, another is revealed as no crime at all.
While mystery hangs over how Jonathan’s exposure affects his unlikely late-life companion, the novel’s developments rarely feel as earth-shattering as they’re plainly meant to be — not least the story behind some ominous graffiti.
Fans of Mandel’s hit pandemic thriller Station Eleven may find it all rather a fussy mess.