The titular hotel of Emily St John Mandel’s new novel sits gleaming in a remote part of an island in British Columbia, Canada. Surprisingly, however, the Hotel Caiette, owned by finance tycoon Jonathan Alkaitis, is not a main character or even the main location of the novel The Glass Hotel, which is a largely character-driven narrative that examines how even seemingly small, unimportant decisions can lead to major life changes, causing a butterfly effect that eventually spirals out of control.

Mandel’s last novel, Station Eleven, which was set in a world destroyed by a swine flu pandemic, propelled her through the literary landscape in a way her earlier three novels — Last Night in Montreal, The Singer’s Gun and Lola’s Quartet — had not. Station Eleven is referenced in The Glass Hotel, but here, the “Georgia Flu” of Mandel’s last book is just a vague, faraway threat, much like what Covid-19 was as recently as January.

The active threat in The Glass Hotel is a Ponzi scheme being run by one of the characters. That, and the existential angst of rudderless, privileged North Americans, all of whom just want more money — so much that they will never question the methods used to get it. One of these is the young, local woman Vincent, who tends bar at the Hotel Caiette and gets lucky that her “social chameleon” skills have attracted the attention of the owner of the hotel, enough for him to propose that she join him as a companion or trophy wife — without the actual marriage, but with all the economic advantages of being married to a billionaire whom she actually quite likes.

A Ponzi scheme and the existential anxieties of rudderless, privileged North Americans, propel this tale of modern-day capitalist angst told as a haunted house story

Vincent can now stop worrying about money. She can travel the world and live well, meet interesting people, make pointless five-minute videos of landscapes or the sea and convince herself that this is a life fulfilled. But we know this is short-lived because the book opens by telling us that Vincent will vanish off the side of a container ship, and that Alkaitis will end up in jail. How do they end up where they do? How many lives does Alkaitis destroy with his systematic fraud? How far do the ripples of what he does cross over into other lives? And what of Vincent, who leaves her recovering addict brother, Paul, at the hotel; what does she cause by making the choices that she does?

On the same night that Vincent’s life changes, someone scrawls the words “why don’t you swallow broken glass” on one of the hotel’s window-walls. This becomes some sort of anchor for much of the narrative to follow: who wrote this and why did it shake the shipping executive sitting in the lobby so much? What does Paul have to do with any of this? Was it a coincidence that this happened on the night Alkaitis found Vincent? The author ties many loose threads quite delicately along the way in the narrative, often making connections over time and space that are very subtle and need a decent amount of focus to make sense of, but eventually, this whodunnit aspect of the graffiti feels like a bit of a red herring. Is it to mislead the readers from something else, or is it really as earth-shattering as the characters seem to think it is? It is an odd, out of tune note in what is otherwise an extremely well thought out and carefully crafted narrative web.

It’s possible to know you’re a criminal, a liar, a man of weak moral character, and yet not know it, in the sense of feeling that your punishment is somehow undeserved, that despite the cold facts you’re deserving of warmth and some kind of special treatment. You can know that you’re guilty of an enormous crime, that you stole an immense amount of money from multiple people and that this caused destitution for some of them and suicide for others, you can know all of this and yet still somehow feel you’ve been wronged when your judgement arrives. — Excerpt from the book

If Station Eleven were a Shakespearean tragedy told as a post-apocalyptic novel, The Glass Hotel is the story of modern-day capitalist angst told as a haunted house story, featuring its characters’ personal ghosts. Not just do the varying timelines weave about each other, echoing every so often and spinning out into divergent narratives and possibilities, they also have shadow-self parallels alongside them. Every character is haunted, not just by her or his past, but also by the possible futures they could have lived. The rich tycoon Alkaitis, for one, must face being haunted by the many people whose lives he has ruined, people who considered him a true friend.

Mandel’s writing style remains quite introspective and dreamlike, even when telling the story of the actual massive financial disaster, immense greed and a whole lot of lies about fraudulent lives that come apart within hours. It does take a little patience to stay with the meandering pace of it, with vital jigsaw pieces scattered artfully all over rather than lined up neatly, ready to be popped in when needed.

Expect much moral anguish, much introspective angst and pain, much brooding and staring off into the waves of a turbulent sea that reflects the inner turmoil of the characters. There is a lot of seeing them suffer existentially, emotionally and financially. But there is not so much of feeling it alongside them, as the narrative keeps at an odd distance that stops us from ever getting much too close to the characters. There is always plenty of detail, but much of it is narrated through a foggy lens, which makes it all the more harder to care for many of the characters whose lives we are witness to.

The reviewer is a book critic, editor of The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories and hosts the interview podcast Midnight in Karachi at Tor.com

The Glass Hotel
By Emily St John Mandel
Knopf, US
ISBN: 978-0525521143
320pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 17th, 2020