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The Glass Hotel: a fragmented ghost story about the collapse of a Ponzi scheme

Book review: Mandel grounds her interrogation of reality in tangible modernities such as big industry’s invisible governance of the world

The Glass Hotel
The Glass Hotel
Author: Emily St John Mandel
ISBN-13: 978-1509882809
Publisher: Picador
Guideline Price: £14.99

In Emily St John Mandel’s 2014 novel Station Eleven, the author conceived a post-apocalyptic world (post-pandemic, no less) to tell a story that championed human creativity. Her new book, The Glass Hotel, considers a lesser social calamity through a supernatural lens: it’s a ghost story about the collapse of a Ponzi scheme.

It’s hard to see at first, but the conceit’s logic is solid. In a Ponzi scheme, the funds themselves are ghosts. When investors lose everything, the life they know dies and becomes a haunting past. For the victims time is a line neatly divided between before and after.

The Glass Hotel, however, doesn’t follow a linear narrative of build-up, breakage and epilogue. The Ponzi scheme run by investor Jonathan Alkaitis is the centre around which several narratives orbit. The novel moves by jumping among the orbits, which is to say, the lives of the characters.

The first chapter, Vincent in the Ocean, is written in fragments, and opens with the words, “Begin at the end.” Vincent (a woman) will become the second wife of Alkaitis. They meet one night at the Hotel Caiette, which Alkaitis owns, where Vincent tends bar and her half-brother Paul works as a cleaner.


The night Vincent and Alkaitis meet is significant for another reason: before his arrival the lobby window is defaced with a message that reads, “Why don’t you swallow broken glass?” The incident isn’t a mystery the novel pursues, apparent that Paul is the culprit. Instead the event scatters the pieces. By the end of the book we see that all the principal characters were in the lobby that night, and that everyone will be connected to the Ponzi scheme.


The novel is rife with reflections, dimensions, and layered perspectives. Several characters articulate the idea of a parallel life. Oskar, a member of the Alkaitis staff, fantasises about “a ghost life” in which he isn’t complicit; in prison Alkaitis indulges in a mental “counter life” wherein he escaped sentencing.

These daydreams bleed into and corrupt his memories, memory itself becoming an escape and a fantasy. One of the victims of the scheme, a shipping executive named Leon Prevant, loses his retirement savings and ultimately his home. His new vagabond life takes place in “the shadow country,” an unstable realm he vaguely suspected when he lived at a monied distance.

Leon Prevant the character is a conceptual shadow – Mandel has brought him back from Station Eleven. Spinning another fictional universe for her character adds a meta level to the question of parallel existences.

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. “Sanity depends on order,” says an omniscient narrator. The statement isn’t as tautological as it appears: does the creation of any order amount to something rational?


“I’ve always had an interest in mass delusion,” says a reporter to the imprisoned Jonathan Alkaitis. The book consistently flips two questions: what does it take to not see something, and what does it take to see something that isn’t there?

The novel’s ghost story, for instance, is literal as well as conceptual. Vincent and Paul see visions of the deceased, and in prison Jonathan is slowly surrounded by the ghosts of suicide victims who lost everything in his fund.

Still, this is a novel about money and finance. Mandel grounds her interrogation of reality in tangible modernities: herd mentality in corporate environment; big industry’s invisible governance of the world; the celestial echelon of the wealthy.

In her marriage to Alkaitis (which is a sham), Vincent discovers the surreal world of “the kingdom of money”. The Glass Hotel insists the kingdom is built on fragile foundations. Perhaps because it’s timeless and ubiquitous, the ghost world is comparatively resilient.

In his jail cell Alkaitis reads a message left by the previous tenant: “No star burns forever.” Whether or not the Ponzi scheme can hold isn’t what propels The Glass Hotel. Rather, the novel explores the phenomenon of being beholden to a centre, to a conscience, to a perception of normality and time. If the centre fails, that hold can remain as a kind of haunting, one which occurs in our starkest reality.

Then again, Mandel’s work deals in catastrophe which means it looks for hope. The other way to read The Glass Hotel might be as an offering of possibility: when life as we know it fails, there’s always another one out there.