The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 209 pages, $26
Fiction and reality collide for the protagonist in Cambridge author Laura van den Berg’s latest novel, The Third Hotel. Clare is in Havana to attend a horror film festival she was supposed to go to with her dead husband, Richard, a scholar of that genre. And perhaps—as things surreally unroll—he maintained some sort of membership in its zombie crowd.
Van den Berg’s writing has a dreamy, wondering quality that matches Clare’s experiences. She meets directors and actors, one who suddenly and mysteriously disappears. She also has weird encounters that match the fluidity of life and death presented in the festival’s movies. She senses an eel wriggling in her being, and a fingernail clipping found in a hotel suggests some creepy symbolic meaning. Someone mistakes her for another woman, and Clare plays along, turning into a stranger she never knew.
But as she’s sorting through these happenings, she sees Richard—who was recently killed by a car at night—dressed in a white linen suit. Clare follows him around, keeping her distance, and getting no response or recognition from him. When they later connect, questions about their marriage and his death wriggle forth, some troublesome and some sweet. “Dislocation of reality,” as Clare calls it, abounds. Her widowhood is acknowledged as having its own insanity during the grieving process.
The twinkling of different viewpoints and the language in van den Berg’s novel is close to poetry. Get yourself into a psychic literary airplane to read and join her mystical landscape.
From page 119: “He tapped his index finger on the bedside table. He was silent and yet a conversation, an exchange of some kind, was ongoing; she could tell by the density of the air. She considered the possibility that through some freak mishap in the laws of physics, he had been vaulted into a future, a future where he lived and boarded the flight to Havana, but at the same time it was not quite his future; he was someone else here.” ◆