Review: The Third Hotel

After arriving in Cuba for a film festival, Clare spots her husband standing outside of a museum. The thing is, he most certainly died shortly before the trip. Clair is bewildered, but determined to track down this doppelganger and have a conversation. 

Laura van den Berg’s dreamy novel The Third Hotel (Digital galley, Farrar, Straus and Giroux) floats between the metaphysical and real worlds, leaving the reader uncertain of where the border lies. The screening of a zombie movie during the festival leads to the intermingling on the streets of Havana of the film’s cast and Claire’s undead husband, toying with horror tropes.

But don’t think this is a horror story. It’s something decidedly more subtle. Van den Berg is a skilled storyteller who offers observations on marriage, sorrow, solitude and even tourism. Photography, filmmaking and binoculars make repeat appearances in the story, suggesting that observations can be altered depending on how we frame the scene. 

“If someone were to ask after her impression of Havana, it seemed the most honest answer would be to admit that there was no impression, not yet; on any given street so many visuals collided that she found the initial view blinding,” van den Berg writes.  “A photographer, and she had seen many people taking photos, could arrange the city to look however they wanted: nostalgic, luxurious, devastated, avant-garde. Some forms of watching were designed to obliterate the subject.”

The book’s climax fills all of the senses and pays such attention to detail that it feels like a scene out of a Hitchcock movie. The Third Hotel is a haunting and surreal novel that richly explores the psychic toll of grief. 

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