Young and hip, but there are better contenders

(Hamish & Hamilton, 2001)


"For anybody who has ever stayed in a hotel, worked in a hotel, longed to check into a hotel", says the back cover.

But despite the tantalisingly cosmopolitan title and sweeping blurb, Ali Smith's Hotel World is hardly an attempt to depict the empty life-cycle of the global jetsetter.

Really the only voice present is that of the Everywoman of Blairite Britain. Or five of her faces anyway. And they are all white. Each of the novel's five chapters (named after grammatical tenses -- Past, Present, Future Perfect, etc) is a different woman's narrative take on her life around the Global Hotel. Each is a rant about loss, loneliness, time and the essentially solipsistic nature of existence. Not unlike the ensemble movie Four Rooms, only with less blood.

It is a hotel of a life, true, yet coloured too deeply by the British obsession with class struggle -- a trait Smith herself admits in one interview.

One woman is a homeless street-dweller, another a high-rolling lifestyle journalist. Their paths cross awkwardly in one Kodak moment.

You can almost hear the novel straining to make the right social noises before falling back into the usual excuses for a lack of connection between the two: People are selfish and essentially apathetic.

Yet Smith's prose can be lyrical and exhilarating. The opening chapter -- a giddy account by the ghost of chambermaid Sara Wilby -- is one long riff of sensory overload and linguistic escapism.

If you are a fan of Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novels, Sara sounds suspiciously like Delirium, only more verbose.

Particularly charming are her intriguing lapses in vocabulary, as the ghost loses her grip on the hard-and-fast facts of her life. It is a cheeky yet poignant tour de force and an apt metaphor for unstable human memory and identity: "Remember you must live. Remember you most love. Remainder you mist leaf."

Unfortunately, other sections fall short, even in such games of craft. Sara's sister has a whole obsessive wail of a section to herself -- a chapter-long stream-of-consciousness without full stops.

It is fascinating for all of five minutes before fading into tedium. Sure, sister, grief can be overwhelming and life is tough. That does not make it good writing.

In Hotel World, history, like the English language, is a British invention. It is haunted by ghosts, each clamouring to be heard at the same time as life incarcerates us all in the poor cell of our own heads.

But the novel's central premise -- metaphysical wordplay aspiring to insight on the nature of time, language and the transience of relationships -- is glaringly derivative, and hardly as experimental these days as it purports. Others have gone further and done it better.

Nevertheless, it is not a bad read. Smith has an eye for linguistic and narrative detail which makes it pleasurable to pick at the small picture for petty treats and neat turns of phrase. Not always too clever by half, just enough to disappoint.

That Hotel World is on the Booker shortlist is the clearest evidence yet of the committee's attempt to make the venerable literary award hip with the public, by picking bright young writers. Still, there are better and more ambitious contenders this year.