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The Third Hotel, by Laura van den Berg
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 212 pages)

09/26/18



When did quotation marks become verboten? The Third Hotel is the latest novel in which the author has shunned the overhead curls, seemingly taking the advice of novelist-screenwriter Cormac McCarthy, who has said, “If you write properly, you shouldn’t have to punctuate.”
While in some hands disdain for formal rules of grammar punishes the reader, Laura van den Berg’s second novel seems to prove McCarthy right. Even without proper punctuation, The Third Hotel is a sparse, gripping story of a young widow stalking her dead husband in 2015 Havana. All we need are commas and periods, set within a couple of enormous question marks that frame the story.
Clare and her husband Richard were living the placid lives of the childless outside of Albany, New York, when Richard was struck and killed by a car while out on an evening walk.  
Clare, a frequent traveler who sold elevator parts, had noticed her husband was changing in odd ways in the weeks before his death. He’d stopped eating bananas and salt, and started walking “so slowly and contemplatively it was as though every tree branch was a source of wonder.” When police returned his personal effects, she found a small, sealed box that had been in Richard’s pocket that she couldn’t bring herself to open.
So she packed it, along with her clothes, and set off for Havana, where both she and her husband were scheduled to attend a film festival. Richard was a film studies professor, specializing in horror,  and had been looking forward to the debut of the first zombie movie shot in Cuba, Revolucion Zombi.
In setting this up, van den Berg reveals a sly wit, explaining how at a panel discussion the filmmakers discussed the zombie school they’d established to teach extras “proper lurching and vocalization and makeup.”
“One extra had gotten carried away and started biting shoulders. A podiatrist had found a bloodied shirt in the gutter and called the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution.”
But despite the occasional flash of dry humor, this is not a comical novel, but more of a mystery that van den Berg deftly unravels after Clare encounters her husband — at least what appears to be her husband, alive, uninjured — standing outside a Havana museum, wearing a white linen suit and tasseled loafers.
Unable to get his attention, Clare starts to follow the person formerly known as Richard, becoming, in essence, a stalker of the undead. It’s an interesting premise, satisfyingly laced with a sub-story about Clare’s complicated relationship with her father, who is dying of dementia in Florida. 
But the appeal of The Third Hotel is not its complexity or its narrative arc, but in the beauty of its language. It’s a zombie book for people who don’t like zombies, or zombie culture, but would rather exclaim over artful arrangements of consonants and vowels than watch The Walking Dead or Train to Busan.
Van den Berg, the author of two story collections and the 2015 novel Find Me, enlivens her pages with surprising similes (“words bloomed in her mind like a miserable flower”) and descriptives (a mirror had “the kind of lighting that could make a person reconsider every choice they had ever made in life”). There is smart writing throughout, and van den Berg is a master of subtle detail that conveys a world of information in a few words, as in how Clare couldn’t guess her husband’s email password after his death; it eventually was revealed to be a numerical sequence that meant nothing to her.
Early on, the director of the Cuban zombie movie explains why he embraces horror as a genre, why it appeals to filmmakers and viewers. The point, the director explains, is “to plunge a viewer into a state of terror meant to take away their compass, their tools for navigating the world, and to replace it with a compass that told a different kind of truth.” The viewer, distracted by fear, does not notice this transaction taking place, but would depart the theater accompanied by these “new truths,” “swimming like eels under the skin.”
Clare’s truths — or are they her fictions? — slither throughout the two weeks she spends in Cuba, tracking her husband and exploring her marriage and childhood through unsettled memories. Is she an unreliable narrator disabled by grief, or one whose judgment is pickled by her own attitude about honesty? “Honest was trotted out in the name of all kinds of awful things, including cruelty — too much of it could splinter a person,” Clare believes.
Kudos to van den Berg for not succumbing to an easy ending, a cheap trick of the commercially successful plot twist a reader can spot a hundred pages away. The Third Hotel is too sophisticated a story for that. Like the director of Revolucion Zombi, it aims to tell different truths, ask different questions. It also makes an uncommon demand of readers: that we not just read, but think. A+ 
— Jennifer Graham 





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