Review: Strange Hotel, Eimear McBride

Published in The Observer January 28, 2020

If you’ve read so much as a sentence of Eimear McBride’s writing, it is likely to have burned into your brain. Her first two novels, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing and The Lesser Bohemians, were both written with a ferocious immediacy, in hurtling, viscerally direct prose that captures pre-verbal thought processes “far back in the mind”, as McBride put it.

Strange Hotel feels like a book determined to show just how different it is from its predecessors. An unnamed 35-year-old woman checks into a hotel in Avignon; over the years, we’ll meet her in several more – in Prague, Oslo, Auckland and Austin. She monitors her desire to drink, to have casual sex, and to not quite look at her own past. She is haunted by a lost love, and these encounters with others – or mostly, really, with herself – in these anonymous rooms bring painful flashes of that former relationship.

One clear departure is in the voice, which is expressed in a kind of convoluted verbosity (“it’s merely her preference not to indulge mortality’s by now routine assaults on her carefully habituated ennui”), as her protagonist engages in an endless, spiralling conversation with herself – analysing her thought patterns, second-guessing her motivations, casting judgment on her evasions and justifications.

The woman uses this discursive language to control her actions and cage her emotions, to (occasionally literally) talk herself down from the edge: “lining words up against words, then clause against clause until an agreeable distance has been reached from the initial, unmanageable impulse”. In the final section – which notably moves from third to first person – she acknowledges that this “relentlessly reshuffling the deck of pseudo-intellectual garble … serves the solitary purpose of keeping the world at the far end of a very long sentence”.

All this is so removed from the fragmented, hot-headed language of McBride’s earlier novels, it feels pointed. The character herself addresses this: she recalls being raised to keep words “as far as possible from the scent of blood and guts” but that she couldn’t help herself, and “all the words filled up with blood and moved around as though entitled to motion … The trick was knowing when to stop. The trick was knowing how much others could take. And then she got tired of the trick. And then she saw others using sub-standard versions of it.”

It’s tempting to interpret this as McBride on some level anticipating the reader’s response to her distinctive change in style. But it’s also possible to ascribe it to one of her previous fictional characters. When the woman describes the first time she stayed in a hotel, taken there by her older lover, the age gap between the two will remind previous readers of the characters of Eily and Stephen in The Lesser Bohemians, as will other details. Could this be Eily’s evolution of literary style rather than (or as well as) McBride’s?

It’s hard to say – this short book is evasively lacking in context. We never know why the woman is in these cities, or what she does in them. We never see her leave the hotel rooms.

Hotel rooms are strange – and McBride captures brilliantly the uncanny feeling of replication across cities and continents they give, how they seem to exist out of time, and how an abstract, untethered version of the self stacks up whenever you check in. But Strange Hotel’s view is also limited, always turning inwards rather than outwards. There’s a stuffy, airless claustrophobia to the character’s solipsism.

“If the past comes in, it will wring her neck”, the woman fears, which feels like a promise for us as much as it is a threat for her – but it’s one McBride doesn’t wholly fulfil. There are a couple of beautifully controlled drops into devastating emotion, but for much of the book, the character desperately tries to avoid that darkness. Without much action in the present or much revelation about the past, going inward isn’t that revelatory.

McBride has pinned down the inner workings of an individual arguing with themselves with as much coherent virtuosity as she captured the unrestrained rush of youthful impressions and geysering emotions in Girl and The Lesser Bohemians. It’s just that – to put it bluntly – the result is rather less interesting.

Where next?