What We Thought: A hyper-luxury hotel in a city by the sea has been overrun by terrorists. Guests who were in public spaces, or who were rash enough to open their doors, have been gunned down. Now the survivors hunker down inside, as outside, the security forces plan their assault. With an opening chapter headed ’87 hours ago’, it is clear we are counting down towards a showdown.
The premise of Hotel Arcadia could be the outline for yet another Die Hard film, but Sunny Singh transforms it into something quite different. Instead of focusing on the battle between the terrorists and the soldiers, she homes in on two people who would be bit players in any Hollywood movie. Abhi, the hotel manager, trapped in the operations room, watching events unfold on the closed circuit television screens. And high up in the tower, Sam, a photojournalist who was spending the last night of her assignment in the hotel.
Hotel Arcadia is a duet of whispered conversations by phone and text, followed by hours of silence as memories peel back layers of their lives. We learn that Abhi is an army brat who refused to follow his father and brother into the forces, while Sam has spent her life moving between one war and another, increasingly obsessed with capturing images of the dead. Both lonely, both used to being alone, they reach out to each other across the darkness, revealing parts of themselves they habitually keep hidden.
This is an intensely visual book. Sam’s photographs are described in lush detail, as is the way she attempts to control the world by framing it through her viewfinder. Photographs and images on screens – who takes them, why they are taken and for whom – become powerful, shifting metaphors.
“It was the jutting plane of this hip that caught her eye ... The jutting bone pushed against brown skin, gleamed in the growing morning light, the lean plane of his upper leg disappearing into the gloom. Shadows reached up from the depths of the hut and bled into hollows of his stomach.”
Singh names neither the city nor the country in which the siege is happening, though it is hard not to hear echoes of the 2008 attacks on the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai. Yet the absence of specificity serves to underline that this could happen anywhere, at any time. This could be Mumbai, but it could equally be New York or London, Sydney, Nairobi or Dubai.
The three and a half day siege is allowed to play out with no sudden rush of heroics. We are left poised in the moments before what, in the blockbuster version, would have been the big set-piece climax – a profoundly emotional ending that satisfies on a much deeper level.
You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: A Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tam, Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid, Grace Notes by Bernard Maclaverty
Avoid if you dislike: Stories where the tension doesn’t come from shoot-outs, car chases and other high octane tropes
Perfect Accompaniment: A bottle of L’Eglise-Clinet Pomerol, 1994. Or failing that, an inch of Auchentoshan single malt whisky, neat.
Genre: Literary Fiction
Available from Amazon