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Ali Smith: Hotel World

This novel is set in and around a hotel in a unspecified city. It tells the stories of five women who have some association with the hotel. The hotel is run by a chain called Global Hotels (We Think The World Of You).

The first woman was, albeit very briefly, an employee of the hotel. Her name is or, rather, was Sara Wilby. Her second day working in the hotel (as a chambermaid), she is clearing up some dirty dishes and plans on putting them in the dumb waiter. However, she tries to see if she can fit in it. She can. And then the rope snaps, she plunges down and is killed.

Though she is dead, we follow her ghost. She goes to her own funeral and, subsequently, frequently visits her grave. She even talks to her rotting corpse, which seems to have a separate but functioning existence. In the hands of a lesser writer, this could have been mawkish or even downright silly but Smith carries it off, as we see the ghost gradually forgetting things but remembering key events of her life, such as her first crush (on another woman), trying to recall her death (she can not but her corpse does remember and tells her) and spying on people and even peering into their minds (one man was was considering knives and blood.) She even appears to her family (parents and younger sister) with generally poor results.

The second woman is Elspeth, known as Else. She is homeless and has a pitch just outside the hotel. It is not clear why she became homeless but now she scrabbles for small change, envious of the young woman over the road who, because of her age, does much better. She reminisces about her past and about her current life but seems quite happy to be homeless. She remembers when someone from a Sunday paper came and photographed all her possession for an article in the paper. Towards the end of her section, someone comes from the hotel – we will know her as Lise, a receptionist – and offers her a room for the night, as the hotel is fairly empty and it is going to be cold. She accepts and enjoys the room but, inevitably, this has consequences.

Lise is the next one we meet and she is no longer at the hotel but very ill. The doctors can find nothing wrong with her but, nevertheless, she feels particularly unwell. It is her mother, Deirdre, who comes round to take care of her. Deirdre was a popular poet (older British people may recall Pam Ayres) and Lise remembers the many LP covers with her mother’s face on them. Deirdre even wrote a poem called Hotel World:

You once worked on Reception
In Control, my daughter dear.
But now you find yourself checked in
To your own Hotel Room, here.

However, we also see her doing her job, which, at least in part, seems to involve going against the wishes of management (e.g. keeping clients on hold for a long time).

Penny is a guest at the hotel. She is a journalist for The World. She has to stay there but is not happy about it. Hotels were such a sham. She was bored out of her mind. She does have some interaction with two other people: she hears a noise outside her room and sees someone trying to unscrew something off the wall (only later do we learn who and why). She tries to help and then gets help from another guest, who we know is Else. The activity is all somewhat mysterious. Penny even later accompanies Else on a walk around the town.

The final person we meet is Clare, Sara’s younger sister. It is only from her that we learn that Sara was a swimming champion. Clare is, perhaps not surprisingly, obsessed with her sister. Indeed, as she says, she continues to see her or, at least, sense her:  every night ever since then since that night it has been the bits of her coming at me like they are all demanding I never know what.

Apart from the fact that all five are women and all five are associated in some way with the hotel, they do have things in common. All five seem to be loners. Penny sits in her hotel watching porn films and bemoaning her past (her parents divorced and she became a kleptomaniac). Clare simply regrets her sister. Lise’s only friend seems to be her mother. Else seems to have no friends, not even fellow homeless people. The dead Sara is rejected even by her own corpse.

All five seem generally decent people but not averse to committing bad deeds. Penny gives Else a generous cheque and then phones her bank and stops it. Lise lets Else stay in the hotel, strictly against company policy, but then leaves clients on hold and lets one of the chambermaids take the blame for Else’s damage. Else is happy to get what money she can but when
the other, younger woman begging flees from Lise’s approach, Else eagerly steals all the money she has left behind.

None of the five seems to be happy, complaining about their lot but accepting it, presumably because, given where they live, there are few options. What romantic relations they have are not happy ones. Sara has a crush on the woman at the watch repair shop but does not pursue it. Penny has sex with a friend of her father as way of revenge when he is unfaithful to her mother. Sara, aged fourteen, has sex with the man doing the tiles when her mother is upstairs having a shower.

Ali Smith does not, of course, do happy. Her characters, mainly women, struggle with life in some bleak area of the UK. Men are at best necessary evils and often harmful and unpleasant, whether as husbands/boyfriends or bosses or other authority figures. In this book, there is really only one vaguely sympathetic man and that is Duncan who was with Sara when she tried her dumb waiter stunt and who, as a result, has mental health issues, hiding out in the Left-Behind Room (i.e. Lost Property Office), with everyone trying to cover for him but even he remains a shadowy figure.

This book was nominated for both the Man Booker Prize (then simply the Booker Prize) and what was then called the Orange Women’s Prize for Fiction. It won neither but clearly showed that Ali Smith was a first-class novelist who was going to have a successful career as a novelist. I found this novel very thought-provoking, superbly well-written and clearly the work of a top writer.

Publishing history

First published 2001 by Hamish Hamilton