Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 26, 2022

The Glass Hotel (2020), by Emily St John Mandel

I’ve been having a bit of a binge on the M shelf: nothing to make a serious dent in it, but when I didn’t have room for Simon Mawer’s new novel Ancestry, I chose four books at random for the bedside table.  I can’t imagine what possessed me to buy Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson and I abandoned it, but I enjoyed Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs (see my review); Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is looking good so far, and Emily St John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel has turned out to be an excellent choice!

Quite apart from the subject matter, which is a splendid takedown of the amoral greed of neoliberalism, I really enjoyed the fractured narrative. The Glass Hotel is a cunningly structured jigsaw puzzle which reveals its interlocking parts over the course of its 300 pages.  It’s a book that must be read without interruption so that connections can be detected but it doesn’t seem to have been created that way to be clever for the sake of cleverness. Rather, it’s to mirror the reality of the Global Financial Crisis as we lived it, the monstrous perfidy of its architects only gradually being pieced together in the media, as we saw investors lose their retirement savings and homeowners walk away from mortgages they couldn’t pay. Australia was one of the few countries in the world not to suffer a recession, thanks to skilful economic measures put in place by the Rudd Labor Government, but there were still plenty of victims whose superannuation vanished when the stock market fell — which is why there are Baby-Boomers still working past retirement age even today.

The book begins with the brief narrative of someone drowning in 2018, and then goes back in time to Y2K when 23-year-old Paul, jaded after years of substance abuse and rehab, makes a tragic mistake and needs a bolthole to evade responsibility for it.  He tracks down his estranged sister and joins her at the remote Glass Hotel on Canada’s Vancouver Island, accessible only by boat.  She works the bar and he — though he has a degree in finance and wants to be a composer — sweeps the floors.

They have stumbled into the world of high finance because this luxury hotel pandering to the notion of wilderness is owned by the finance mogul Jonathan Alkaitis and it caters for people like Leon Prevant, making a fortune from shipping, the ‘invisible’ form of transport which makes the world of global commerce go round.  Nothing must interfere with the comfort and ease of the hotel for its guests, so when some unnerving graffiti appears on the glass window that overlooks the water, suspicion falls on the nearest possible culprit and Paul gets sacked.  Vincent, however, lands on her feet, as beautiful, compliant women sometimes do.

Over the course of the novel the Ponzi scheme which finances the Alkaitis empire unravels, taking with it investors large and small.  Time and again we see this on TV: ordinary people who know nothing about investing their retirement nest eggs losing it all because they have failed to absorb the advice that ‘if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.’  High returns always involve risk, and investors should always spread their investments.  What we see less often is the law catching up with the perpetrators of dodgy schemes, but The Glass Hotel mirrors reality when one of her characters ends up with a breathtakingly long prison sentence, just as in real life — in the fallout of the GFC — US financier Bernie Madoff did when convicted of turning his wealth management business into a Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors of billions of dollars.

Even the guy who makes an escape to avoid responsibility suffers remorse which gives him no peace of mind — a nice bit of schadenfreude for the reader!

(BTW No less an eminence than Barack Obama has recommended this author’s latest release Sea of Tranquility for his annual Summer Reading List a novel spanning days and settings, from an island off of Vancouver to a colony on the moon. Yeah, no, I’m not so sure about that one...)

Author: Emily St John Mandel
Title: The Glass Hotel
Cover design: Mel Four / Picador Art Department
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan) 2020
ISBN: 9781509882816, pbk.,301 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased at Ulysses Bookstore Hampton


  1. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    I enjoyed “Almost English”- chacun à son goût!


  2. I enjoyed your review very much, particularly as this was one of my favorite books for the last several years (I liked it even more than Station Eleven, although I realize this is a minority view!). Like you, I was very impressed by Mandel’s shifting narrative technique, which seemed integral to her story rather than a narrative gimmick.
    If you like sci-fi, you might enjoy Sea of Tranquility. I thought it was good, but not at the same level as Glass Hotel or Station Eleven. Vincent, however, does have a very interesting cameo . . .


    • Hello, greetings of the season!
      Ah, I do like that, when a character makes a cameo appearance in another book. (Philip Salom has just done this in his new book Sweeney and the Bicycles.)
      I’m probably the only person in the universe who hasn’t read Station Eleven and I’m going to see if my library has it.


      • Season’s greetings to you as well, Lisa! (I always find the International Date Line confusing; it’s Xmas night here) I love bookish cameos as well & have noticed Mandel indulging in this in her last few novels. At least one of Glass Hotel’s characters is mentioned in Station Eleven & Vincent and another Glass Hotel character have walk-ons in Sea.


        • Ha ha, it’s Boxing Day here!
          International time zones are a real peril when travelling. I remember on our first trip to Europe the travel agent lost a day and if we hadn’t picked up the error, we’d have had no onward flights.
          When I talk with Joe (Rough Ghosts) in Canada, it’s Monday night there, and Tuesday afternoon here, and I have to puzzle it out all over again every time they or we change to Daylight Saving Time…
          We have New Year’s Day before you do too!


  3. I will have to come back to this review as I have this book and don’t want to know anything more about it than what I have heard so far. I do hear it’s very good. 🌞🌻🌼


    • I’ve been careful to avoid any spoilers, but be careful if you go near Goodreads, other reviewers have not been as careful…


      • I don’t follow Good Reads anymore. Got tired of it. And they do give spoilers. I know you don’t but I have realised I do like to go into new books with only knowing the blurb on the back or a quick mention. I am finding with long reviews, although there aren’t spoilers there is often more information available than I want. If I don’t plan to read the book then I’ll read the entire post. ☀️


        • I only use GR as a cataloguing tool, but I do post part of my reviews there and quite a few people follow the link back to my blog, which is nice.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. There’s a good chance I will like this one. It has been getting a lot of buzz here lately.


    • Hi Guy, greetings of the season!
      It’s getting a buzz now, two years after publication? That’s interesting…


  5. I like this author. I’m yet to read this one but it is on my tbr.


  6. I loved this too. The narrative structure threw me initially but gradually I settled into it. Mandel did a fabulous job of depicting the emptiness of a life where you have absolutely nothing to do except to go shopping/lunch/coffee breaks and then dress in all your finery


    • Yes, I see people (mostly young women, I’m sorry to say) thronging in shopping centres and I think, what a waste of the best years of their lives, and what a waste of money that could be building future security for them.


      • Yep. I also look at the pile of discarded clothing that gets shipped overseas and ends up clogging up their beaches and water courses


        • It’s appalling, isn’t it?


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: