The Glass Hotel is the latest novel by Emily St. John Mandel, author of my all-time favourite and award-winning novel, Station Eleven. In essence, it’s a story about white-collar crime: a Ponzi scheme that blows up and obliterates the structure of many lives in the process. More than this, though, The Glass Hotel is about belonging, about identity and growth, secrets and ghosts, and (in true Mandel fashion) how lives intersect, impact and influence one another.
When I read Station Eleven, I was amazed at Mandel’s ability to weave together the threads of years, perspectives and places into a beautiful, complete tapestry that you never catch a full glimpse of until the very end. In The Glass Hotel, Mandel flexes this unparalleled masterclass in storytelling – in suspense and subtlety – all over again. The first line of the first chapter – out of place and confusing at the beginning – is also the first line of the final chapter, the novel coming full circle as the final puzzle piece slots into place.
It’s not always easy to follow. The narrative structure leaps from 2005 to 2018 to 1998 and back again, from character to character and from place to place – from New York skyscrapers to Toronto to a glass-fronted hotel in the wilderness. It takes some getting used to, and Mandel keeps us close, dropping us right in the midst of her characters’ thoughts and memories. But her answers are always tantalisingly just out of reach, dropped only at the perfect moment. It’s a challenging novel in this sense – but equally satisfying when putting in the work (the reading, the remembering, the patience) results in moments of realisation that, in my case, were frequently accompanied by audible gasps.
Two things that I especially loved about The Glass Hotel (that I think were perhaps a little more daring than Station Eleven which, even in its amalgamated unique plot that drops a travelling Shakespeare company into an apocalyptic wasteland, never strays too far from the solid, the corporeal, the real, however twisted that real may be) are the exploration of ghosts and something Mandel calls ‘the counterlife’.
I absolutely love reading about ghosts, especially when we can’t quite put our finger on whether they’re actual apparitions or figments of the imagination. So The Glass Hotel feels a little tailored to me in that sense, with Mandel exploring ghosts alongside psychology and mental deterioration: one of her protagonists experiences dissociation from their reality in captivity (this is the ‘counterlife’). We constantly question reliability and fact, which makes for an uncertain but juicy read that you can really get your teeth into, and that will really leave you wondering. I know I still have one big question that I can’t stop pondering.
It’s made me want to think more about ghosts – about why we see them, why we think we’re seeing them, and whether we’re seeing them at all. I wrote an essay, almost a year ago now, about ghosts in Shakespeare – about what it means to stage them or to refrain from doing so, and what this declares about their [un]reality. Mandel, in her prose, plays with this [un]reality surprisingly well, and it made for a really exciting, enticing and propelling read. 5 stars.