Eimear McBride set the bar impossibly high in 2013 with A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, famously yoking Joycean pyrotechnics to the delight, despair and revulsion of a troubled teenage girl in rural Ireland. Her follow-up, The Lesser Bohemians, attracted a little less attention, perhaps because its jittery music and its subject matter and setting (destructive student-teacher relationship; London) were more familiar. Her latest, Strange Hotel, is an altogether more sober affair, stripped of linguistic exuberance, and for the most part of affect and event. Its rewards are less immediately obvious, although they do become more apparent on a second reading.
The novel opens with a list of cities: London? Paris, St Petersburg, Moscow, Budapest, Bratislava, some of them marked with an ‘x’ whose significance is not immediately apparent. A woman – simmering, impatient – books into a hotel in Avignon, a place in which she has no interest whatsoever, and which reminds her first of Death in Venice and then of death generally: “Displaying its feathers as the always inevitable.” (Death as the thing with feathers?) She has been here before, and recognises a cigarette burn on the skirting board. Everything – registration, key, door opening, checking of wash bag for spilled shampoo – is recorded in detail and in close-up, as if bearing a great deal of narrative weight.
There is a wistful sense of shame at what once happened in the same hotel, pleasurable though it was, and of what nearly happened this time
She rings down for two (!) bottles of wine, and goes outside for a cigarette, noting the variations in shape and pliability between the different cigarette butts trodden into the grey sand. There is a knock at the door. “Parquet. Pace. Light switch on and handle down. She opens the door. Supplicatory waiter.” Already the reader is beginning to hope that something – anything – is going to happen.
At first little does: she opens and sips her wine, contemplates her body with some fondness, observes the “ribboning profile of a young man” in the adjacent courtyard, and realises that she will need to drink some more before she can break the ties with “home or however that place may be best called to mind”. So, then: the potential for an adventure. Instead, for now her mind turns to breakfast: “In the morning she thinks she’ll probably eat a few croissants. Come on. Will she have jam?” A brief flirtation follows, then the sharp incidence of a remembered encounter with another man in the same setting. Then the sound of sex from the television and taps being turned on by the man in the next room. She reflects: “But in the mode of confession, and given all that has passed, can she truly say coming round on his side of the wall would have been so much worse?” There is a wistful sense of shame at what once happened in the same hotel, pleasurable though it was, and of what nearly happened this time.
Again the list of places, some with x’s, some not, coming to rest, like the spinning of a roulette wheel, on Prague. We are given no explanation as to why our protagonist is travelling (although the inclusion of Hay-on-Wye as one of her destinations may provide a clue), although we do learn drip-wise as the novel progresses that she is, or has been, married, that she has a son and that she has lost someone she loves. Meanwhile, Prague is cobbles and defenestrations, and cigarette butts in pots, and a man taking an unconscionably long time to put his trousers on in the bathroom before exiting the hotel through the rain. And so on to Oslo, and Auckland and Austin, time passing as it will, and more remembered adventures, and more brown-and-beige rooms, non-places that could be anywhere.
Much of the book is a meditation on loneliness, ageing, sex and mortality, melancholy (but not wistful) and as featureless as the rooms in which it is set
In the final section there is an instance of what the film censors call “mild peril”, accompanied by a deft switch of pronouns and a brightening of the hotel-room palette; a sense of urgency is introduced along with an almost physical vigour and a welcome verbal recklessness reminiscent of the earlier novels: “You’ll just have to make up your mind for yourself. Mine has already been made. Mind or bed? Oh, aren’t you a screaming riot, the bloody black box in the head.”
Stylistically McBride still inclines towards Beckett: “Door. Scratched dull lock. Put in. Turn the key. Fail.” But in this one I thought I detected the influence of French novelists, the precision of Emmanuèle Bernheim, the incantatory reminiscence of Duras. Much of the book is a meditation on loneliness, ageing, sex and mortality, melancholy (but not wistful) and as featureless as the rooms in which it is set. It comes as a great relief when the author’s familiar raging defiance finally makes an appearance in the closing pages.