Laura van den Berg’s brilliant new novel, The Third Hotel, is a quasi-supernatural tale of loss and grief, told with an exquisite flair for language. The story follows Clare, a widow still mourning her husband’s sudden death, as she travels to Havana. She is there, ostensibly, to attend the annual Festival of New Latin Cinema in the place of Richard, her husband, a scholar of horror movies. Not long after arriving in Cuba, she spots Richard standing outside the Museum of the Revolution. He is not the man she remembers exactly, but still, she is certain, he is her husband.
The shock of this moment destabilizes both Clare and the reader: “She ordered herself to stop recognizing him, since what she was recognizing was plainly impossible, but she crept closer and saw just how possible it was.” What comes after this encounter is a surprising and surreal travelogue of emotional discovery that plumbs the depths of one woman’s unsettled psyche.
Fittingly, The Third Hotel begins with a question: “What was she doing in Havana?” The initial paragraphs explore this question in the narrative subjunctive, a bold and evocative jumpstart for a novel’s opening salvo: Clare imagines “bumping into someone she had known … in her former life” who asks her this “simple question” and her responding with decidedly un-simple answers:
She might have said,
I am not who you think I am.
She might have said,
I am experiencing a dislocation of reality.
Both answers offer clues for how we are to read this novel. First and foremost, The Third Hotel is about identity and Clare’s sense of self after losing her husband. She suffers from what might be described as an existential crisis, which is further illustrated at a reception on her first night in Cuba, where “she had given everyone who asked a different name.” She doesn’t know herself anymore—maybe she never did. When not stalking her dead husband or attending receptions at the film festival, she wanders Havana, and in a lesser writer’s hands, these passages would have seemed extraneous and diffuse, but van den Berg has a gift for making the ordinary extraordinary, even mysterious, and possibly threatening. Clare’s world is peopled with recurring figures that alarm and delight — the mysterious starlet, the man with the black umbrella, the eccentric professor — all touchstones on her quest to understand the metaphysical and how it has manifested in her life.
Passages in this novel demand to be read aloud and savored, paragraphs that, taken by themselves, could pass for poetry. Take, for instance, this small moment in Clare’s pursuit of her dead husband, when a train stalls on Its tracks:
Clare tried to remain fixed on her husband’s figure five rows ahead, tried to be a good detective, but there was the stillness and the sun and the lack of sleep stalking her like a wolf and soon she was slipping down into the warm stickiness of her seat.
An instant of repose that asks more than it tells. Is Clare dreaming? Or is this a hallucination? Many times throughout I wondered what was real and what was imagined. And van den Berg expertly challenges our demands for the “truth” at every thrilling turn. She has effectively conjured a story preoccupied with its own fictive dream.
The reason for the reappearance of Clare’s husband in Cuba might be explained away by her “dislocation of reality” or by what she has learned from studying film: “The screen had taught her that a person could will a thing into existence, but once it was outside their consciousness, the consciousness that had been busily inventing simultaneous possibilities, it became a force unto itself, ferocious and uncontrollable.” But, ultimately, this book isn’t concerned with why (or how) Clare’s husband is back from the grave, and neither should we. Answers are beside the point. The strangeness of her husband’s resurrection is not nearly as strange, the book insists, as the inauthentic ways in which characters have structured their lives to protect themselves from that which is unknowable and unfathomable, like death and what might come after, if anything.
The Third Hotel is van den Berg’s second novel and fourth book of fiction, and with it, she has firmly established herself as one of this country’s premier stylists. A dreamy otherworldliness haunts these pages, and will, I wager, haunt you, as it did me, long after you finish this slim and masterful mood piece. I dare you to make it to the final, piercing line—which I won’t spoil here—and not feel as if the world you live in has been irrevocably changed.
The Third Hotel
By Laura van den Berg
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published August 7, 2018
Laura van den Berg was raised in Florida. Her first collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and a finalist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her second collection of stories, The Isle of Youth (FSG Originals, 2013), received the Rosenthal Award for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her first novel, Find Me (FSG, 2015), was long-listed for the 2016 International Dylan Thomas Prize. She lives in the Boston area.
Nick White is the author of the story collection, Sweet and Low, and the novel, How to Survive a Summer. His fiction and essays have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Catapult, The Hopkins Review, Guernica, The Literary Review, and elsewhere. He is Assistant Professor of English at The Ohio State University and lives in Columbus.