Strange Hotel

Eimear McBride

Faber & Faber, £12.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

Meet our unnamed protagonist, as she makes herself comfortable in yet another hotel room. “Once foxed by dials not of her immediate ken, she is now au fait with all the buttons of hotels...”

This one is in Avignon, where she once stayed with someone, we learn, who is dead. Navigating the room, its light switches, room service and balcony, she makes brief contact with the occupant of the neighbouring room who, like her, has stepped out for a cigarette. Retreating inside, she takes this no further. Not tonight.

Strange Hotel is told in the third person, in a manner intended to reflect the woman’s need to keep her distance. It takes place in a series of hotels, first in France then Prague, Oslo, Auckland, and Austin. In between these scenes are lists of dozens of other cities where she has since alighted. Next to some of the names is an x, signifying, one assumes, a brief encounter, but certainly not love. As she reveals, she is done with love’s “brutalist mercies”.

Eimear McBride caused a sensation with her first novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. That explosive, adrenalised account of a young Irish woman desperately trying to escape the confines of home, yet also care for her ailing older brother, came roaring out of the Joycean and Beckettian stream of consciousness tradition.

It was followed by The Lesser Bohemians, about an abusive relationship between an older actor and a drama student. Less stylistically demanding, this too was disturbing. Now, with her third novel, McBride has eased off the staccato, and her sentences flow in rhythm with her protagonist’s thoughts: anguished, panicky, revolving, repetitive, and occasionally humorous. In common with the first two books, however, is its bedrock of sexual self-expression, and the claustrophobic sensation she creates of being trapped in an angst-ridden woman’s mind.

Rejecting the possibility of sex with the man next door, this insatiable world traveller finds other ways to pass the time: “The dark. And hotel rooms alone. Everyone knows what that means. Primarily pinkly personnelled pornography. Popularly, perseveringly and – periodically perceivably painfully – protractedly pursuing previously private perspectives of perfectly pumped penii practically pummelling professionally pruned pudenda and precisely depilated, pucely pert or – more pedantically – patently pedestrian posteriors alike.”

After Avignon comes Prague, and all the others. It comes as a shock in Oslo to discover that several years have passed since the previous scene. In Avignon, she is 35; by book’s end, she is on the cusp of 50, older than her partner was when he died. This dragging passage of time speaks for itself.

Not until the final pages does McBride reveal the purpose behind this woman’s incessant hotel and bed hopping. It might feel an insufficient explanation, but the agony McBride conveys shows that we are in exceptional territory in terms of emotional pain. As she writes, there was in the past a time when “the thought of a jump had occurred to her most days... every day would be more accurate. And on some days, every hour. Some hours, every minute...”

There is a mythic quality to this woman’s quest, its duration, and demands, and the rituals to which she must adhere. It is as if each occasion is a magical spell whose incantation must not falter lest it fails to work. But while there is little in the way of plot, years of an adult life pass beneath our gaze, as she deals with her response to loss, and the world in which it leaves her.

At times it is absorbing, McBride’s linguistic acrobatics sinuous and beguiling. Too often, however, the sentences are ugly, or overly theatrical. Doubtless this echoes the way the woman speaks when her wine bottle is empty. And, as she says, “She somehow thinks that language will see her through... From afar as possible being the emphasis – keeping words as far as possible from the scent of blood and guts. Building cathedrals around them to mask them. Sometimes digging moats.”

Such a narrative technique unfortunately can turn curiosity into a penance, as if the reader is complicit with the author in teasing out the meaning of every sentence, and where it might lead. The banality of getting into a hotel room or checking out the mini bar is neither interesting nor revealing. It is the fictional equivalent of dead air or treading water, with the result that, while this is not a long book, it sometimes feels like one.

Yet this too, you suspect, is deliberate. That sense of ennui, or never-ending sameness mirrors the woman’s ceaseless travelling. Fortunately for her, by story’s end there does appear to be a shift, offering the prospect of life after death. But the succession of hotel rooms continues. Where at first they might have represented purgatory, now it might be possible to view them as a more kindly, less life-threatening limbo.