Reading Laura van den Berg’s disquieting new novel, “The Third Hotel,” is akin to walking out of a dark movie theater into bright sunlight. Part of you is still living in a cinematic dreamscape. The real world is what’s imaginary.
The book has the premise of a thriller, what with recent widow Clare spotting her dead husband, Richard, in a white linen suit outside a Havana museum. A film scholar working on a book, Richard died five weeks before in a hit-and-run accident near their upstate New York home. Now she’s in Cuba on a trip they had planned to see the premiere of a Latin American zombie movie. But first, she sees Richard. She follows him, loses sight of him, sees him again. He remains elusive.
Has Clare’s grief conjured a ghost? Or is this a case of mistaken identity? Van den Berg lets her surreal tale do the telling, paying homage to Latin American cinema and horror films in the process. There’s also a nod to Daphne du Maurier’s chilly short story “Don’t Look Now.” Early on in the narrative, the director of the zombie movie says the foundation of horror is a dislocation of reality. Viewers are plunged into a state of terror when you “take away their compass, their tools for navigating the world.” What’s left are new truths, “swimming like eels under the skin.”
“The Third Hotel” can be as slippery as any eel. Clare, a 37-year-old sales rep for an elevator company whose marriage was good, bad and mysterious, admits to feeling unmoored. She keeps getting lost, gives the taxi driver the wrong address for her hotel, calls herself by different names as she mingles with festivalgoers, pretends to be part of a tour group.
Watching Richard buy mangoes on the street or following him to a seedy rooming house, she reflects on her growing up in Florida and her parents’ troubled marriage, on the anonymity of the hotel rooms, her father’s slide into dementia, the growing divide between her and Richard the last year. Memories melt into dreams into digressions, the sensation of a second, secret self.
As in Van den Berg’s short stories and her novel “Find Me,” the writing is lovely and fluid. She is comfortable with ambiguity, and “The Third Hotel” isn’t intent on resolution. It reminds me of another hotel, that one in California, where “you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.” Haunting.
Nancy Pate is a writer and reviewer in Orlando.
The Third Hotel
By: Laura van den Berg.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 212 pages, $26.