The most transforming kind of fiction is capable of causing a dislocation of reality: a bit of the bizarre, a lot kept beneath the surface and worlds opening within worlds. There’s Borges and Bolaño, Kafka and Cortázar, Modiano and Murakami, and now Laura van den Berg. The acclaimed author of two story collections and a novel, van den Berg has always been good, but with “The Third Hotel” she’s become fantastic — in every sense of the word.
The novel begins when its heroine, Clare, travels to Havana for a Latin American film festival. Her husband, Richard, was a film studies professor specializing in horror, and it’s horror that sets the tone. Five weeks earlier, Richard was hit by a car and killed. Grieving, Clare goes alone, and some time after being in Cuba, she suspects something strange might be happening, “a world opening within another.”
As the pendulum of narration swings between where she finds herself in the present and her past, it becomes clear Clare is unhinged, wild. People notice. “The grieving are very dangerous,” someone tells her. “They are like injured animals with fearsome claws, bloodied and pushed into a corner.” She’s told she’s deranged. And she just might be. Not only because she’s a serial liar and eats paper, but because the person who tells her this is her dead husband.
Just after watching the only horror film of the festival, she sees Richard. Understandably startled, she follows him into a museum — only to scare him away and lose him. But she deliberately misses her flight home, finds Richard again and stalks him around Havana, eventually chasing him across the island and into the Escambray Mountains, where she can finally ask him some questions. His answers unsettle her more than the possibility of talking to a ghost. Birthplace of the zombie and voodoo, the Caribbean is no stranger to the supernatural, and Clare’s uncanny experiences feel right at home there.
The fantastic plot is elevated by van den Berg’s fantastic writing and unique twists of language. Clare, who is now 37, knew back in her 20s that “the ice cube she had pressed against her heart in childhood was proving slow to thaw.” When speaking with a colleague, Clare “had searched for the scent of mistrust in the air.” Of the dementia killing Clare’s father, it came on rapidly, but “the end had been encoded inside him all along.” “The mind,” van den Berg writes, “contained a million half-open doors and they could become closed or swing open at any time, by virtue of remembering or forgetting or illness or petrified avoidance.” These sentences aren’t flourishes of showoff; nothing unoriginal slips by in this flawless novel. Even a pastor’s shoes are described as “the shoes of unemployed professors at academic conferences. They were the shoes people get buried in.”
Then there are larger aspects of the fantastic. Not only the implications of the miraculous, but “there was a mystery at hand, and Clare had given herself the role of solving it.” There are, in fact, many mysteries. Why is Richard in Cuba? Why did he change so much over the months preceding his death? And what’s inside the box he was carrying when he died, the little white cardboard gift box Clare hasn’t yet had the nerve to open? She carries the sealed box to Cuba, sporadically taking it out and wondering what could be inside. It’s such a simple but brilliant plot device. If the black box is the part of our minds we can’t access, what’s a white box? The memories we can reach, if only we want to open the box and look?
Yes, van den Berg knows what she’s doing. And she wants the reader to know she knows. While traveling, Clare reads Patricia Highsmith’s “The Two Faces of January,” which she finds unsettling. Not because of the story, but because of “the hidden things she sensed quivering under the surface. Subtext, she supposed this was called, and she did not care for it.” Maybe Clare doesn’t, but the author must, because so much subtextual lava is coursing under the surface of every page of “The Third Hotel” that the book feels like it’s going to erupt in your hands.
Randy Rosenthal’s work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Paris Review Daily and other publications.
By Laura van den Berg
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 212 pp. $26