What is the difference between a novel and a series of connected stories? That’s a question I asked myself repeatedly while reading Ali Smith’s Hotel World (a novel), probably influenced by having read connected short stories by her recently. The six pieces that make up Hotel World didn’t seem tight enough somehow, but there is a certain single story arc that I can see makes this different.
Structurally, the book is divided into six sections, each focusing on a different character—all female. The first and fifth sections are told in the first person, in different stream-of-consciousness styles, by a pair of sisters. The middle three sections are in the third person, about three women connected with the hotel where the first narrator, Sara, fell to her death. The sixth, I’ll save.
Sara was a chambermaid, fooling around with a dumbwaiter that gave out under her weight. She fell from the top of the hotel straight to the bottom—but she can tell you that much better than I can:
hooooooo what a fall what a soar what a plummet what a dash into dark into light what a plunge what a glide thud crash what a drop what a rush what a swoop what a fright what a mad hushed skirl what a smash mush mash-up broke and gashed what a heart in my mouth what an end.
The whole of the first section is wonderful (at least, if you think that is wonderful, as I do). It’s not just the stream of consciousness thing. Sara is really interesting in death. Before, she was a diver, and is now obsessed with her fall. How long did it take? She forgets the words for things, she can’t remember all of what happened, she goes to visit her corpse underground and get the story from her (“How are you? I said. Sleep well?”). She finds out that just before dying she fell in love.
Sara’s chapter is frantic and poignant but actually happy. She is not sad to be dead. She has lost, but she has gained. She observes outside the hotel:
Here’s a woman being swallowed by the doors. She is well-dressed. On her back she carries nothing. Her life could be about to change. Here’s another one inside, wearing the uniform of the hotel and working behind its desk. She is ill and she doesn’t know it yet. Life, about change. Here’s a girl, next to me, dressed in blankets, sitting along from the hotel doors right here, on the pavement. Her life, change.
These are the women, listed in reverse, whom we will follow for the next three chapters: Else, Lise, and Penny. It’s not just that their connection to Sara is tenuous. It’s that they don’t have her voice or her urgency. We’ve been so intimate with Sara that the third-person sections are most interesting when we get another little bit of her own story, or that of her sister Clare. Who cares about Penny, after all? What we care about is what she witnesses: Clare ripping the cover off the boarded-over dumbwaiter to throw down every object she can get her hands on, to time the fall.
That’s not right, really. The other women are important. They should be. But they don’t fulfill the promise of that first section.
Clare almost does. With her, in the fifth section, we have a really wild stream of consciousness—the consciousness of a young teenager who’s lost her sister, who doesn’t know if it was suicide or an accident, and whose parents can’t bear to acknowledge anything that’s happened. Clare is tortured awfully, leading to her own incident with the dumbwaiter. But in the hotel, a massive symbol of lifelessness and international corporate blandness, she finally finds the people who can help her work through her feelings.
And finally the sixth section. It’s the girl Sara fell in love with. It’s just the right slightly less personal closure, after the deeply personal one Clare goes through. The catharsis of the fifth section is taxing, and here we can come up for air.
Ultimately, Smith does get to show a bit of the difference of the novel’s form, because the emotional trip from Sara to Clare to the end is more than a short story can do, and probably more than just connected short stories can do as well. They have to be things in themselves after all. And the emotional aspect is something that really worked here. But not the best Smith I have read.