Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell
“You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave.”
Never has a quotation been as appropriate to a book as that above to Will Wiles’ second novel. Yes, the lyric is from the Eagles’ Hotel California, and the novel is about a hotel with a particular allure – more about that later!
Wiles is an interesting young novelist. His background is in high class journalism for architectural and design magazines. His first novel Care of Wooden Floors, while ostensibly being a high-class farce about the perils of flat-sitting for a friend with new blond wooden flooring, also showcased his eye for design and attention to detail in home furnishing (albeit in a minimalist style in this case).
In The Way Inn, he turns his attention to the über-bland styling of hotel chains – styled so as not to offend and to be easy to clean. Everything in the room is designed for purpose – consider the light fittings…
People often choose a hotel room as the place to end their life. Did you know that? It’s a consideration in the design of the light fitting, and some of the other aspects of the room, although not one we’d admit to. Maybe they do it because they know the body will be found, it won’t rot undiscovered in a one-bedroom Docklands flat. So the hotel becomes an ante-chamber of the morgue.
Yes, this book is that dark! But before we get there, we need to meet Neil Double, the narrator of the novel, and to find out what he does for a living. Neil is a ‘professional conference-goer’. He spends most of his days in lofty exhibition halls, researching markets and new products, attending seminars. Having been to a good few conferences and exhibitions in my time in scientific and health & safety fields, I can assure you that they are generally 99% boring and only 1% interesting. (I can’t comment on the London Book Fair though – I’m sure I’d enjoy that!)
You instantly think that he must be employed by the big conference organising firms or the chains of venues – but no, his job is far more subtle than that. Neil’s sales pitch to a potential customer goes thus:
What if there was a way of getting the useful parts of a conference – the vitamins, the nutritious tidbits of information that justify the whole experience – and stripping out all the bloat and the boredom?
Neil is a conference surrogate. As he says: ‘I go to these conferences and trade fairs so you don’t have to.’ What a fascinating idea. He has to be very discrete though – what if his company was rumbled by the organisers? It’s bad enough bumping into people like the annoying Maurice that you’ve met before at the exhibitions.
Neil lives out of a suitcase and is a habitué of the anonymous conference hotels that a built in a symbiotic relationship with the exhibition halls – with shuttle buses and all that. He’s fond of the Way Inn chain of hotels in particular and the one thing he loves more than anything else about is the ability to have a long hot powerful shower whenever you want.
Negotiating the hotels’ bars and restaurants during big conferences is less fun though. Wiles writes tellingly about all the businessmen and women searching for free tables at breakfast time – how true! Neil might end up having Maurice sitting with him again. But if you always use room service, you’ll never meet anybody interesting, and Neil is musing whether this conference is the one where he might see a certain red-headed lady again.
It so happens that he will meet her and get to talk to her this time as she photographs the abstract paintings on the hotel walls. All the paintings are similar, yet different and it seems she’s mapping them – finding your way back to the lifts in these huge hotels with corridors that all look the same can be confusing …
Up to this point, the novel was concerned with setting the scene for the conference and hotel business, picking at the habits of business people away from home placed in this ersatz, rather alien environment. It was a slow-burn read so far, but then something strange happened – Hello!
The book began to take a sinister turn – and then each time I thought I was getting the measure of what was happening, it did something else unexpected. It was seriously messing with my head and it became precisely the kind of mind-bending book that really intrigues me. A kind of understated horror crept in; I was getting echoes of Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves – but with beige carpets and well-lit halls.
I don’t want to spoil any of the secrets of The Way Inn for you, but should you embark on reading this novel, don’t let the low-key start bog you down. You can relish Wiles’ acute observation and love for his special interests whilst you prepare yourself to be bamboozled and thrilled in equal measure by what is to come. If his first novel was a farce, and his second touches the realms of darkness, I can’t wait to see what his third will be about!
Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books editors, and would prefer the Grand Hotel Budapest to a Way Inn any day!
Will Wiles, The Way Inn (4th Estate, London, May 2014) 978-0007545551, hardback 343 pages.