April 2020

by Stephanie Bishop

‘Strange Hotel’ by Eimear McBride
A woman unceasingly travels to contend with the inertia of grief, in the latest novel from the author of ‘A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing’

A hotel room, says the unnamed protagonist in Eimear McBride’s third novel, Strange Hotel (Faber & Faber), is a place “built for people living in a time out of time – out of their own time anyway”. The protagonist knows such rooms well, inhabiting one after another over roughly a decade, in a futile attempt to sidestep the chronological tyranny of her life.

We meet her first in a hotel room in Avignon. Then there is Prague, Auckland, Austin. We don’t know why she chooses one place over another. Nor how much time passes between her visits. We never read of her entering or leaving these rooms. Some she has been in before. Interiority is concentrated as her consciousness bounces off the walls, debating her options for entertainment. These generally concern the men she invites to join her, and the overarching plan for her hotel life that is often referred to but not disclosed: “A plan without a B.”

As we pass through these rooms the narrative develops as a dialogue with self, sometimes loosened by wine. During her one-night stands the boundaries between real time, memory and the residues of fantasy life are destabilised. “But is it so wrong,” she asks, “to play looking at him again? I mean, I do know it isn’t him … She is not really seeing what it is she longs to see again.”

It gradually becomes clear that somewhere in her past is a formative hotel room and a formative man. Grief is the driving force of her restless travels: “She looked for him. And that state has fundamentally remained the same.” The men she sleeps with remind her only of the man she lost. She lives now as if in a state of arrested development. “She has made it like that so everything occurring, after the old life stopped, would simply be an again.”

Relative to McBride’s previous books, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing and The Lesser Bohemians – both fuelled by densely fractured syntax – the visceral force of Strange Hotel appears muted. But if this book marks a shift in McBride’s language towards something more discursive, it is in keeping with the experience of the narrator who has, in midlife, become desensitised by grief and repetition. The emphasis is on the toing and froing of a consciousness that encounters itself in a state of agitated confinement, dipping in and out of the present. “That’s not very good,” the narrator observes. “Is it even true? Look out the window. Properly. Rouse yourself to do it.”

McBride’s achievement lies in her power to evoke the unsettling sensation of inertia felt by a woman at odds with her own history. In Strange Hotel one is moved almost by default as the narrator looks away again and again, until she finally turns back to see her past for what it was and finds a way to live beyond it.

Stephanie Bishop

Stephanie Bishop is a lecturer in creative writing at the University of New South Wales. Her new novel is Man Out of Time.

Cover image of The Monthly, April 2020
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