Laura van den Berg – The Third Hotel

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Laura van den Berg – The Third Hotel

Clara travels to Havana, Cuba, to attend a film festival. She is there on professional terms she tells the people, but actually, she works as a sales representative for ThyssenKrupp. She watches a horror movie, Revolución Zombi, due to its renowned director and she is looking for Richard – her lately deceased husband who was actually working on film. During her endless search, memories come up, the last days together with Richard before he was killed in an accident, their wedding day, her childhood when her parents owned a hotel in Florida that she roamed like a ghost.

Just as Clare wanders the streets of Havana, so do her thoughts and the reader accompanies her in her search which will lead to nothing – quite the contrary, the longer she roams, the more she herself seems to get lost. At times, she is self-conscious, understands exactly what is going on, that her mind is in exceptional circumstances due to the loss she has just experienced, but then again, she is talking to Richard as if he stood right next to her.

“The Third Hotel” – the name Clara gives her accommodation in Havana since twice before the taxi driver had taken her to the wrong one – is a psychological study in what can happen to a person whose life is turned upside down. Even the simplest things become obstacles hard to overcome:

“What was she doing in Havana? A simple question and yet she could not find a simple answer.”

Clare experiences as she calls it a “dislocation from reality”. There are phone calls when the phone never rings, there are people at the other end of the line that could be herself – she is lost in a parallel world that collides with other peoples’ reality but then again, there are walls that clearly separate those two spaces. Towards the end, a short dialogue perfectly sums up how Clare feels:

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, Clare said, with bitterness.

What doesn’t kill you leaves you alive, Richard countered. (…)

What doesn’t kill you only leaves you feeling broken and insane.”

She is not herself anymore, just like her father who also suffered metal degeneration, she at times cannot differentiate between what’s real and what’s imagined anymore.

The strongest parts of the novel are the descriptions, Laura van den Berg has an eye for the detail and particularly for the sensory aspects. Her protagonist might be gone mad, but her feelings are real. Apart from this, I liked the travel metaphors a lot. The characters are constantly moving in the novel, everybody is travelling, alone in a group, going here and there, on trains, buses, airplanes – yet, does anybody every arrive? Figuratively, aren’t we all relentlessly roaming and searching for our self, not knowing if we ever arrive?

R.O. Kwon – The Incendiaries

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R.O. Kwon – The Incendiaries

When Will comes to Edwards University at Noxhurst, he has a lot of things to hide from his fellow student: he does not come from a prestigious background, quite the opposite with his mother an addict and his father bullying the family, he is ashamed of his constant lack of money and the fact that he left a Christian college since he lost his faith is also something he’d rather keep for himself. When he meets Phoebe, he immediately falls for the girl of Korean descent. Soon they cannot live one without the other, but they both keep some things for themselves. Phoebe, too, has things to hide but the feeling of having to share them is growing inside her. It is John Leal and his group where she feels confident enough to talk about her past. But the enigmatic leader is not just after the well-being of his disciples and it does not take too long until he comes between Will and Phoebe.

R.O. Kwon’s debut is a rather short read which nevertheless tackles quite a number of very relevant topics: love and loss, faith and cult, abuse and how to deal with it and last but not least abortion. A lot of issues for such a novel and thus, for my liking, some were treated a bit too superficially and I would have preferred less.

In the centre of the novel, we have the two protagonists Phoebe and Will who, at the first glance, couldn’t hardly be more different than they are. But when looking closer at them, it is obvious what brings them together: as children and teenagers, they had a kind of constant in their lives which gave them orientation and lead them. For Phoebe, it was music, for Will, his Christian believe. When they grew older and more independent, they lost that fixed point and now as students they are somehow orbiting around campus searching for their identity and guidance.

Opposing them is the charismatic leader of the Jejah group. The way he precedes is quite easy to see through from the outside, but it also clearly illustrates why he can be that successful nonetheless. He offers to Phoebe exactly what she needs at that moment and thus it is not too complicated to put a spell on her. John always remains a bit mysterious, but there is no need to reveal all about him, that’s just a part of being a strong leader of a cult, keeping some mystery and fog around you.

“The Incendiaries” is one of the most anticipated novels of 2018 and I was also immediately intrigued by the description. I definitely liked Kwon’s style of writing a lot, it is lively and eloquent. Also the development of the plot and her characters are quite convincing. However, I think she could have gone into more depth, especially towards to end.

Aminatta Forna – Happiness

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Aminatta Forna – Happiness

They meet by accident, but somehow they have known each other forever. Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist, has come to London to give a speech at a conference. He is a specialist in post-traumatic stress and has seen the worst the world has to offer. But this is not the only thing he has to do there. First of all, he has to find the daughter of some of his friends who hasn’t called for a couple of days and who, together with her son, seems to be missing. Another thing task waiting for him is to visit Rosie, his former colleague and lover. She is in a home, not aware of the world anymore, waiting for her life to come to an end. While Attila is occupied with the humans around him, the American biologist Jean cares a lot more for the animals. Especially foxes around town. She is fighting a hopeless battle against those who want to kill them all and do not understand that this is not how things work with wild animals.

Aminatta Forna’s novel has a title which could hardly fit better: “Happiness”. The whole story is about happiness and the question what you need in life to be happy and what happiness means after all. But maybe it is not happiness that we are looking for, but rather – as one of the characters puts it – hope. Without hope, there is not future, but you can have a whole lot of future without happiness.

Both Jean and Attila are most interesting characters in their very own ways. The author has done a great job in creating them and in opposing them, their view of the world and the way they approach life. They have some similarities, too, their principles and beliefs and the fight for what they believe is the right thing – it is not easily nowadays to find people with such strong convictions.

Yet, what I loved most about the novel were the really poetic ways of unobtrusively talking about life and love in a philosophical way. She captures the fragility of love and our existence in a way that is hard to excel. I really fell for the language in this novel and was waiting eagerly to find more of those passing comments that capture so much truth in this unassuming, shy way:

The reckless open their arms and topple into love, as do dreamers, who fly in their dreams without fear or danger. Those who know that all love must end in loss do not fall but rather cross slowly from the not knowing into the knowing.

It is a bittersweet story, full of love and loss, life and death. And certainly one of the most remarkable novels of this spring.