How well can one know oneself? Laura van den Berg’s eerie yet compelling second novel, The Third Hotel, explores this question with a clanging loneliness, like a wrench falling down an elevator shaft.
Clare, troubled and newly widowed, travels to Havana, Cuba, for a horror film festival that her late husband had planned to attend. From the onset, everything is strange, creating a bleak space between Clare and the reader. Just when the reader starts to question Clare’s reliability as a narrator, Clare spots Richard, her dead husband, in the streets of Havana. She follows him and spies on him for several days, but she’s less like a devastated lover who can’t believe her eyes and more like a cool and distant voyeur. She follows him to a resort (or is it a mental health facility?), where they have a literal post-mortem on their relationship that leaves Clare grappling with the reality of her role in their marriage.
A major theme of this slim novel is mystery: the nature of Richard’s hit-and-run death; the contents of a simple package he left behind; the actuality of the man Clare is following in Havana. Did she find Richard, or someone who looks like Richard, or is she just imagining him altogether? All the alternatives seem equally plausible through van den Berg’s adeptly disorienting storytelling. An equally important theme is the undead, whether it be Richard, zombies in the festival’s films or inescapable memories that dig their way to the surface.
Clare is so aloof that it’s hard to picture her ever connecting with Richard in the past, though van den Berg supplies occasional flashbacks that reveal their somewhat joyous union. A little slow to start, the pace picks up in the second half as clues planted by the author come full circle.
The Third Hotel is a chilly, thought-provoking study of loss, loneliness and life after death.