In Peter Cameron’s latest novel, an American couple referred to only as “the man” and “the woman” check into the Borgarfjaroasysla Grand Imperial Hotel in an unspecified northern European country. This is no ski junket; they are finalizing a long-awaited adoption of a child they hope will mend the widening rift in their marriage.
So far, pretty normal, right? But not long after check-in, the man finds himself in the hotel bar, where he is befriended by an ex-circus performer of indeterminate age and treated to the local alcoholic delicacy, a lichen-derived schnapps “tasting faintly of bleach and watercress and spearmint and rice.” The town’s two main attractions appear to be the orphanage and an enigmatic healer who goes by the name of Brother Emmanuel.
The man and woman’s first appointment with the orphanage lands them—possibly by accident—in the healer’s den, which might or might not have been fortuitous, given the woman’s apparently untreatable cancer. This turn of events then cascades into a series of Waiting for Godot-esque moments in which anticipation is frequently met with frustration and further delay.
As in Samuel Beckett’s famed play, we learn a great deal about the Americans as they await their next disappointment, chatting among themselves and with the Fellini-ish cast of supporting characters. Every time the reader begin to adjust to a new normal, Cameron slips in something to unsettle it all, such as the hotel’s doors (one of which the man kicked in after losing his room key) being UNESCO-certified artifacts salvaged from a Cairo opera house. That’s the kind of revelation that will make minibar charges seem trivial.
Perhaps What Happens at Night might have been more aptly titled When Serling Met Sartre. It’s a weirdly compelling mix of all the elements that make us human and all the situations that test our humanity.
Maybe these characters should have read a Yelp review before they booked this reservation. It’s likely that the Borgarfjaroasysla Grand Imperial Hotel doesn’t get many repeat customers.