Horror movie tropes inform a widow's struggle to distinguish reality and fantasy in in Laura van den Berg's brilliant second novel
Clare sees dead people. A widow in her mid-30s wandering the streets of Havana, a tourist surrounded by tourists, she locks eyes with her late husband, a horror-film scholar named Richard, in broad daylight. She came to Cuba to screen a zombie film in his honor, the experimental Revolución Zombi, at the Festival of New Latin American Cinema. She stays in Cuba, missing flights and traipsing through tropical forests, to observe a zombie of her own. Whether he’s gone and haunting her or alive and merely hiding from her becomes, in this nightmarishly vivid novel, beside the point.
Strange, unsettling, and profound from start to finish, The Third Hotel is a book teeming with the kind of chaos that can only emanate from the mind. It could be fairly described as a meditation on grief, or marriage, or travel; fresh insights on each materialize regularly, at enviable levels of nuance. This is not quite a linear marital drama, however, nor a somber exploration of memory and loss. In her second novel, author Laura van den Berg (Find Me) channels genre masters like Hitchcock and such evocative literary works as, particularly, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo. She gets under your skin and hits bone. Hers is a terror tale as mercurial as life, veering between the grisly and the gentle. There’s talk of cats killing themselves and random fingernails being swallowed, actresses going missing and ostriches escaping zoos, baked into a story of decaying marriages, sleepless nights, life’s forever-unfinished business.
Early on, Clare listens to the Revolución Zombi director describe his attraction to horror — “to plunge a viewer into a state of terror meant to take away their compass, their tools for navigating the world, and to replace it with a compass that told a different kind of truth” — and it’s a philosophy that informs her own twisted journey. The line between past and present is blurred; secrets between spouses and parents and children manifest ghosts and regrets and the fear of the unknown.
An award-winning writer of short fiction, van den Berg is a storyteller of astonishing detail. Her descriptions — whether concise or elongated — simply demand attention. While Clare hides out in Richard’s apparent new apartment — in which “everywhere she saw slight disorder” — the sinister ring of the rotary phone spells Scream-level doom, its sudden vibrations all but trembling the page; at other times, she’ll feel as if she’s just “swallowed rocks” or placed an ice-cube down her shirt — sensations which contribute to this novel’s Kafkaesque sense of reality. But then the mood shifts in gracefully poignant directions. On her spectacularly unusual and intimate reunion with the man she thought was dead: “His lips wet on her neck, the soft press of muscle and vein, the quench of the ache — and afterward, when she curled up naked and began to sob, broken by overness, he lay behind her and held her close as she wept, something he had never done for her in their former life.” Then, on the pain of saying goodbye to him just weeks earlier: “The more she listened to him breathe, or pretend to breathe, the more she felt the widow within, her former self, from her former life, thrashing underneath the surface … the woman who had been given a shovel at the funeral and was asked to participate in smothering her husband in dirt.”
Clare’s bumpy, wistful relationship with her husband is over, and yet it continues. Its mystery is propelled by instinct, of an atmospheric logic realized by van den Berg with bloodcurdling realism. The author also executes certain passages with excruciating melancholy, demonstrating razor-sharp acuity in her meditations on life’s most shared experiences. Midway through The Third Hotel, she constructs a fuller, deeper portrait of a marriage in one page than most novels manage in 300:
The author surrounds the central narrative with strands of intrigue: the economic transformation of Cuba’s capital city; the confluence of misogyny in life and art; the vast, beautiful emptiness of the American Midwest (which Clare’s business travels — she works as an elevator sales representative — could allow her to bask in). And the novel is slim, at just over 200 pages. Yet its many elements combine with inexplicable ingenuity, provoking thought through disorientation. Van den Berg zeroes in on Clare’s paralysis; she lives in the space between her husband’s supposed death (in a car crash) and the impending death of her father, who is living with severe dementia and has tasked her with making the fateful decision. Death is everywhere, but it’s life that’s tormenting her.
Van den Berg can be heavy-handed with the parallels she draws, the big ideas she’s confronting, but it’s all in service of this masterpiece of life and afterlife. Dashes of explicit theorizing and clue-dropping, whether from a kooky professor or a zombified Richard, snap pieces into place before the whole puzzle crumbles. The only elements to trust are the imagery: the wild widow chasing after her dead husband from train car to train car, the bright-blue Havana sky raining down humidity that tastes of misery and hope.
Sitting near Richard one day, Clare wonders why he’s still invading her world: “You are dead.… How could you have forgotten?” She’s annoyed, confused, sad. What seemed complete is anything but; she has no choice but to face the past. It’s a key moment in the novel. The Third Hotel ultimately probes one woman’s reaction to the senseless. We follow her, beguiled and afraid and not quite sure what to think, but helplessly sure of what to feel. The answers to the many open-ended questions van den Berg poses are rooted in that intrinsic understanding of why this woman follows her ghost of a husband across Cuba, or assumes an alternate identity for a single night, or eats crumpled pieces of paper and business cards, or — at the novel’s end — tries sprinting away from the moon, as it appears “crimson and swollen and aching with power.”
In this specific, climactic moment, Clare screams, feeling the encroachment of a world other than her own. It’s par for The Third Hotel’s course. But then she returns to her father, describing the “evil moon” and her anxieties; he looks at her and sees her — “the last time such a miracle might ever occur.” Life, in other words, rears its head once more to stare Clare in the face, to take her pulse. Now that’s terrifying. A-