Ali Smith - Hotel World (2001)
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
‘Woooooooohooooooo what a fall what a soar what a plummet what a dash into dark into light …’ So opens Hotel World, as Sara Wilby’s ghost remembers her body plunging to its death down a lift shaft in a branch of the Global Hotel chain. Right away we know we’re in for a rollercoaster narrative. ‘I want to make a book so strong you can hit it with a hammer and it doesn’t fall apart,’ Ali Smith said once in an interview. I haven’t tested it with the tool kit, but Hotel World may just be that book.
Its grand themes and grimy details grow with re-reading. Characters skip between the six sections as Smith switches voices with awesome ease. Nothing is introduced then ignored; no images are left to fester, forgotten. Falling, for example: homeless Else letting fall vowels (‘Spr sm chng?’); Lise the receptionist falling mysteriously ill; the Penny dropping for a jaded journo as she remembers her parachute jump; grief-stricken Clare imagining her sister diving from the highest board at the swimming pool; the assistant in a watch repair shop falling in love with a customer. Readers fall, too; for Smith’s characters and their world, haunted by their presence long after the covers have closed on their stories.
Smith grew up in Scotland, and I like to think her work is rooted in our great tradition of the fantastic. She utterly disregards boring notions of reality. Ghosts? Metaphysical poet-quoting homeless people? Why the hell not? As Smith gently reminds us – ‘Here’s the story’ – it is a story. Unlike many writers, she doesn’t consider literary theory in the way M Night Shyamalan’s villagers viewed the Shed That Must Not Be Entered. She’s happy to open the door and have a rummage around, as if it’s the Left Behind Room of the Global Hotel, and her experiments with language and structure never sacrifice readability. Every page, every line, every word is packed with pleasure, but substance always matches style.
The adjectives which Penny uses to describe the global could be applied afresh to the novel. Superior! Transcendent! Hotel World makes you want to seize with both hands its suggestion to ‘remember you must live’. If the world’s a hotel, make the most of it before you check out. Wooooohoooooooo!
Further reading: Smith’s greatest strength is in her richly imaginative short stories, so try Other Stories and Other Stories (1999) and The Whole Story and Other Stories (2003).
View the complete list of the 100 Best Scottish Books.