An unnamed woman in her mid-30s checks into a hotel in Avignon. Despite the heat, or perhaps because of it, she stays in her room, smoking and working her way through bottles of room-service wine until it grows dark. In the courtyard outside she spots the “ribboning profile of a young man.” An opportunity arises to take things further, but the woman resists the temptation and instead loses herself in wayward thoughts and slides into booze-fueled oblivion.
In the cold light of day she battles shame and fatigue while unbidden memories reshape and ram home two facts: one, that she has been here before; and two, that she is scarred by a relationship that was supposed to last a lifetime but didn’t even come close.
On the surface, the first section of Eimear McBride’s third novel, “Strange Hotel,” is curiously underwhelming and maddeningly evasive. Not a lot happens. Little is known. Nothing is at stake. McBride continues in this vein as her protagonist drifts through the years, visiting a series of cities and staying in a succession of hotels.
But what the book withholds and how it unfolds are the keys to its success. The voyeuristic reader is invited into the woman’s room and into her mind to try to make sense of her meditations and recollections, her transactions and transgressions. The result is a novel rich with mystery, complexity and seductive charm.
After the south of France, we see the character in Prague in her early 40s. She sits on her balcony watching the heavens “disgorging themselves” and contemplating the drop — or her fall — to the cobblestones below, while waiting anxiously for her one-night stand in the room to leave. There are other encounters with men, first in Oslo and later in “the farthest furthest she has ever been,” Auckland.
At the end, in Austin, the woman takes stock of her life and reflects on “the excellent carnage of being young” while pressed against the door of her hotel room and stealing glances through the spyhole at a persistent admirer.
It is in this last section that McBride switches from third to first person, perhaps to emphasize the urgency of the woman’s confessional. We also hear how she is tiring of her long-winded “pseudointellectual garble.” She is being too hard on herself, but she is right to draw attention to her voice. McBride’s first two novels, “A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing” and “The Lesser Bohemians,” were all about voice: each unfurled by way of churning streams of consciousness, distorted syntax and fragmented phrasings. “Strange Hotel” is a more conventional affair. Some readers will relish its relative accessibility; others will miss the verbal pyrotechnics of its predecessors.
What McBride does give us is a beguiling, enigmatic heroine. Her short stays and brief flings provide tantalizing glimpses of who she is and how far she has traveled.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Eimear McBride.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 160 pages, $25.