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The Glass Hotel By Emily St John Mandel.

Surviving a financial meltdown

Set against the 2008 global financial crisis, The Glass Hotel looks at how people pick up the pieces and move on
Sep 11, 2020 5:50 AM

The Glass Hotel
By Emily St John Mandel
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
Paperback, 307 pages, S$30

Reviewed by Helmi Yusof

RECENTLY, a 2014 novel titled Station Eleven and written by Emily St John Mandel returned to global bestseller lists. The novel tells the story of a global pandemic that wipes out 99 per cent of Earth's population.

Anyone who catches what's known as the Georgian flu would die within a day or two. Everything that people living in developed nations had taken for granted - tap water, electricity, supermarkets, the postal service, broadband - disappears. The remaining 1 per cent who survive the outbreak move on and figure out new ways of living on less.

In these strange surreal times, one can understand why so many readers are burying themselves in the disaster novel. It's the same reason why the turn-of-the-millennium book series The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook sold 10 million copies and spun off games, calendars and TV series. People want to be prepared for the worst. As the current pandemic has shown, a world with space shuttles, DNA testing, AI and Twitter is not immune to "black swan" catastrophes.

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If you're one of those people who recently read Station Eleven, rewatched the 2011 film Pandemic and panic-bought huge packets of toilet rolls back in March, you might want to read St John Mandel's latest novel, The Glass Hotel, published earlier this year. This too tells the story of a crisis - but not a public health crisis. Instead it's about a financial crisis that unravels the lives of most of its characters.

Now it's unlikely that St John Mandel had timed the release of her new novel to coincide with the economic meltdown caused by Covid-19. But, with the coming winter set to trigger another wave of the virus, government support for workers and businesses eventually expiring, and the stock market recovery unsupported by fundamentals, some pundits are predicting a worse financial disaster just around the corner.

The Glass Hotel centres on a Ponzi scheme that unravels against the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis. The man behind it is John Alkaitis, a market maker who creates a bogus investment fund that dupes individuals and organisations out of billions of dollars.

But the novel isn't just about this Bernie Madoff-style fraud. It's also about the many characters caught in its web, from his young trophy wife Vincent and her half-brother Paul, to a Saudi prince who commits suicide after losing his fortune. It's a novel about the haves and have-nots, the greedy and the needy, the wolves and the lambs. It's about class and money, and the things that people do to stay at the top.

Before his downfall, Alkaitis is unimaginably wealthy, constantly surrounded by moguls, celebs and socialites. His luxurious lifestyle is seen through the eyes of his beautiful second wife Vincent (named after poet Edna St Vincent Millay) who comes from a poor background but is savvy enough to figure out the rules of living among the monied.

Vincent's close friend, Mirella, is another trophy wife who has lived with her Saudi prince-husband in London, Singapore and New York. "You know what I've learned about money?" says Mirella. "I was trying to figure out why my life felt more or less the same in Singapore as it did in London, and that's when I realised that money is its own country."

Money is indeed its own bubble, and within it the attendant illusions and blinkered narratives of self. When Alkaitis is sentenced to imprisonment for 170 years, his penniless wife Vincent picks up the pieces and tries to reinvent herself. Other characters also find themselves in similar conundrums, but some recede into despair and insanity. Alkaitis, for one, starts to hallucinate in prison; the people he defrauded come back to haunt him.

Like St John Mandel's previous novel Station Eleven, The Glass Hotel is less about the global crisis than what its characters do to flee, confront or move past it. The profound message of St John Mandel's novel is that our realities are more fragile than we think. Just as the pandemic upended our daily routines almost overnight, a financial crisis can similarly unravel the life we built or took for granted for decades.

The fault isn't necessarily ours - as it wasn't for the many who were fooled into giving Alkaitis (or Madoff) their money. But the capacity to adapt and transform ourselves is what separates the survivors from the victims. The titular "glass hotel", a hard-to-reach five-star hotel located in the wilderness and owned by Alkaitis, is a metaphor for how fragile and delicate our realities are.