Sam thought that the first shots were in her nightmares. …
No, she never thought of bullets, except in her dreams. Perhaps that is why she felt so disorientated when she finally awoke to the screeching of the phone. …
‘Ma’am,’ the voice on the phone whispered urgently, ‘I am calling from reception. We have a problem. Please stay in your room. Lock the door please. And please turn off all the lights. You cannot let them know you are there. Do not open the door for anyone. Please.’
The quotes above, from the first page of Sunny Singh’s marvellous novel, set the stage for a literary thriller that instantly grabbed me and wouldn’t let go – I read all 224 pages in one sitting.
I had already been looking forward to reading this book, having been enticed by the lurid rainbow of colour surrounding the picture of a Colonial-style luxury hotel on the cover. Although we assume the hotel is in India as Singh is from there, in truth, the Hotel Arcadia could be anywhere – its exact location is never specified, and the action in the novel takes place completely inside the hotel.
The premise of the novel is very simple – a group of terrorists storms the Hotel Arcadia, systematically hunting down the guests and murdering them – we never find out why. We see what happens through the eyes of just two people: Abhi, one of the hotel managers and Sam, a guest, both of whom escape the initial purge.
From his initial hiding place under the front desk, Abhi is able to raise the alarm then escape, locking himself into the back security office where he has CCTV and connections to the outside world. Taking his job very seriously, he does his best to contact as many guests as possible and once the security forces are apprised liaises with them as their man on the ground. All along though, he has Dieter on his mind; his lover would have been waiting for him in the bar that evening.
Sam is a war photographer. Her way of winding down at the end of a gruelling assignment is to hunker down in a luxury hotel with a good bottle of malt whisky for a couple of nights to keep her PTSD at bay and to put off returning home. Sam only photographs the dead. ‘Her photographs are tombstones for those unnumbered, nameless dead.’ She snaps back into her professional mode, and once she’s sure the gunmen have moved from her corridor, starts planning.
The journalist on the silent television is guessing at about a dozen gunmen Sam imagines that there must be a couple of hundred hostages in the hotel. Sam doesn’t count herself amongst them, of course. But that does mean a couple of hundred potential photographs.
If the dead shall insist on following her, Sam knows of only one way of facing them. (p12)
She rings Abhi, demanding floor-plans. He tells her to stay put – politely. Soon he will spot her in the corridors on CCTV, armed with her cameras – and the two of them will talk and text through the hours as he follows her every move. Their relationship develops from initial exasperation to respect and friendship as time passes. The difficulty arises when Sam discovers Billy, a child alive under the bodies of his parents. She’s not maternal at all and knows that the child may endanger her own life; it takes some strong persuasion from Abhi to get her to rescue him and take him back to the temporary safe haven of her room.
Singh however, between the gunshots and murder, finds space to tell us more about Abhi and Sam. The peace-loving Abhi is rather a disappointment to his father compared with his brother who is prepared to fight, yet as a young boy Abhi reveres his older brother Samar. We explore Sam’s extraordinary career, her restlessness and failure to commit to relationships. They are both outsiders, brought together under these deadly circumstances. Abhi and Sam balance each other perfectly in this story; two strong characters, each written with depth and immediacy. If this balance had been off just a little, the novel wouldn’t have worked so well.
Despite the asides for their back stories, the tension ratchets up and up and the body count rises as the gunmen go about their terrible business preparing for their grand finale. The first chapter starts at ‘67 hours ago’ but it isn’t until the novel comes to ‘Now’ in the final pages that you realise this siege has lasted nearly three days – such is the pace at which we are carried along.
Singh has done her research really well. There is authenticity in the hotel layout, the near identical rooms and corridors, the acres of marble in common areas. She’s studied (war) photographers and their kit too, there’s a preciseness about Sam’s work and equipment that has just the right level of detail.
As to whether Abhi, Sam or any of the others get out alive, of course I can’t say, but this gripping novel will stay with me for these two wonderfully written characters. I heartily recommend it.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Sunny Singh, Hotel Arcadia (Quartet Books: London, 2015). 978-0704373792, 226pp., hardback.
BUY Hotel Arcadia at The Book Depository (affiliate link).