What a perfect, pared back, frantic little book. Ali Smith’s 2001 Hotel World was, like her How to be both, nominated for the Man Booker prize and it is a profound, brilliant read. At less than 250 pages, Smith has crafted a novel that is all-consuming, could be consumed in any order; that once finished drives you back to the beginning.
Sectioned into five parts, the book glimpses into the lives of five people connected to one branch of the ubiquitous Global Hotel chain, brought together and forced apart by a bizarre and tragic incident involving a dumb waiter. But nothing is quite as linear as that. When we start a part, we never know where we are, but places and characters return a new, in a different time, from a different perspective, layering up a whole story. It is compulsive, almost like solving a mystery. But the sensitivity with which Smith creates her characters also makes it enormously emotionally powerful. Some lines are like a punch in the guts; some are raw and real; some are so perfectly funny and natural.
Smith has an art of instant immersion and characterisation from her brilliant control of language. The first line of the first page bursts through with: “wooooooo-/hooooooo what a fall what a soar what a plummet what a dash into dark into light what a plunge…”. The lines literally fall down the page with the character. This immediate first-person strong presence is bracing. Out of context it potentially reads like laborious poetry but in the context of the story Smith’s writing style and chameleon-like adaptation of syntax and idiom and even punctuation is subtle and accomplished.
“& one time I stood up on the arm of the couch when there was nobody else in the room & put my hand on the top of the door for you where the wood is still kind of rough up there it isn’t painted I don’t think it has ever been painted since whoever built the house there’s loads of like years’ worth of dust & stuff is all layered on I think our whole fucking family is up there in layers including the cats & when I came down I touched the velvet of the armcover of the reclining chair so you would know what it felt like though the touch of velvet makes a shiver go down my spine like if you scratch your finger across one of those old vinyl singles in his collection not you me & I look at these things so hard so you will know if you want to what they look like”
And it’s worth appreciating how accessible the book remains, even with this significant reconstruction of language. Unlike other books, the styles are intelligible, perhaps because it is emotionally genuine and reflective of the characters it represents. This is not modernism for modernism’s sake, but a real utilisation of the tools the English language gives us to tell a story not just through using words but how we use those words. And there are moments of real beauty too, clear crystalline observation.
I don’t want to write much more about the plot and characters because that may take away the pleasure of discovery. It takes your breath away. It is intelligent and imaginative, bristling with life, infused with pathos and delicacy. This book confirms to me that Ali Smith is a deeply accomplished writer, smart and incredibly creative; a master of her craft.