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The Third Hotel

Review

The Third Hotel

THE THIRD HOTEL is neither a long book nor a dense one. But the entirety of it is much greater than the sum of its parts. Author Laura van den Berg explores a number of themes in this haunting tale of unresolved grief and loss against a backdrop that is by turns tarnished and shimmering. One does not need to have had the same experiences as the book’s protagonist to crawl into her skin and become trapped beneath.

The story is told from the third person point of view of Clare, who recently has become widowed as a result of the hit-and-run death of her husband, Richard. Clare has come to Havana to attend a festival of new Latin American cinema. Richard was a horror film scholar, and the work of a practitioner of the genre --- who he believed to be groundbreaking --- is being featured there. The title of the book and its circumstance foreshadow the mood. Upon arriving in Havana, Clare finds herself at two different hotels before going to the correct one, which she refers to throughout the book as “the third hotel.”

"Van den Berg’s exquisite descriptions of Havana, the film festival, the attendees and Clare herself persuasively propel the reader deeper into the book in search of what may or may not be the mystery at its core."

While there are barriers that any innocent would encounter when traveling abroad, from language to differences in culture and currency, Clare’s biggest problem lies within herself. She almost immediately makes herself mildly notorious at the festival site by engaging in some bizarre behavior, possibly alcohol-induced but probably not. Again, this incident --- which comes back to haunt her later --- foreshadows the book’s major focus, which is Clare’s repetitive sighting of Richard in Havana. She follows his apparition through the streets with varying degrees of success as her already tenuous hold on reality becomes increasingly slippery. Her shadowing gives her the opportunity to review the problems that had existed in her marriage and her life, even as Havana seems to quietly implode in the wake of her passage.

One such incident involves one of the actresses to be featured at the festival going missing. Others, including the escape of several animals from a zoo, may be a coincidence. But when a train accident occurs, one wonders to what extent Clare’s presence is inadvertently influencing matters. Yet Clare, who is the personification of the unreliable narrator, creates her own major issue. One never knows if what she describes as happening is actually true. By the time the novel is complete, the reader might be forgiven for wondering if Clare ever really traveled to Havana at all, among other things.

My favorite fiction is one where the lines of what is real and what is not are gently and questionably blurred. THE THIRD HOTEL fits those parameters perfectly. Van den Berg’s exquisite descriptions of Havana, the film festival, the attendees and Clare herself persuasively propel the reader deeper into the book in search of what may or may not be the mystery at its core. One is never quite sure if the question posed in the book’s first sentence is answered, but the last sentence --- one of the best I have read thus far this year --- leaves little room for doubt as to what will occur in the story’s unwritten future.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 10, 2018

The Third Hotel
by Laura van den Berg

  • Publication Date: August 7, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • ISBN-10: 0374168350
  • ISBN-13: 9780374168353