Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
A hotel is a confluence of stories: a mixture of public and private space; a places where chance encounters are routine; somewhere that plays host to fleeting visits from travellers, but may also have its own continuity that stretches back decades or more. In his fifth novel, Mark Watson (best known as a stand-up comedian, though he ought to be well known for his fiction, too) takes a tour of forty years in the life of one central London hotel, and the many lives of the people who have passed through its doors.
Watson’s venue is the fictional Hotel Alpha, founded by one Howard York, a man who believes in his own good fortune, and is determined to make the Alpha a place where anything is possible. He’s a generous figure with a strong moral centre: he will happily welcome in anyone who just needs a place to stay for the night, and recruited a concierge by disguising himself as a drunk old man and slumping in the road by the interview queue. The only person in the queue who helped him was Graham Adam, whom York hired on the spot.
Life hasn’t always been easy at the Hotel Alpha, though. In 1984, the building caught fire: one guest died and her son, Chas, was blinded. With young Chas’s father long since out of the picture, Graham adopted the boy and raised him in the hotel. He was schooled there, too, with the help of a talking computer (Howard being only too happy to invest in the latest technology for him) and a regular tutor, Ella.
Graham and Chas are our narrators for the novel. They alternate chapters, and in many ways provide opposing (yet sometimes complementary) viewpoints: Graham is wary of new technology, for example; but Chas embraces the freedom that it brings him. Though both narrators are intrinsically tied to the Alpha, it is the only world Chas has ever known, while Graham still has his own home life – so maybe we could see Graham as representing the ‘outside’ and Chas the ‘inside’, or Graham the hotel’s past and Chas its future. We see how their lives are changed in different ways as a result of developments elsewhere, from Ella leaving for New York, to the threat of secrets being revealed.
If Hotel Alpha the novel is very much the story of Graham and Chas, it’s not really the story of the Hotel Alpha itself. Howard York ultimately remains a mysterious figure; and, though we see landmark dates pass in the hotel, they tend to be refracted through the prism of the characters’ viewpoint. Watson makes canny use of dramatic irony over things like the Millennium Bug, or the characters’ interest in whether London will be announced as host city of the Olympics; it has the effect of highlighting that even the most personal events are taking place in a wider context, and that the ramifications of that context may only become apparent in hindsight.
So far, I’ve only talked about Hotel Alpha as a novel; but Watson has also written a hundred short stories to go with it, which are available to read online. Though the novel is complete in itself, the online stories are effectively the second half of Hotel Alpha, as they cast their viewpoints far and wide. We see what happened to some of the hotel’s guests; learn more about why Howard York set up the Alpha; find out why Ella suddenly left. We discover previously unknown relationships between characters; and can trace unexpected chains of cause and effect between individual stories, or even sometimes back into the main novel itself. With the stories, the structure of Hotel Alpha comes to mirror that of a hotel, with each one a separate ‘room’ which is nevertheless an integral part of the whole. That’s the real story of the Hotel Alpha: all those individual stories, added together.
Mark Watson, Hotel Alpha (Picador: London, 2014). 978-1447243298, 361pp., hardback.
David has selected one of Mark Watson’s Hotel Alpha Stories to showcase the online content (reproduced with the publisher’s permission) for Shiny New Books – click here to read it.