Magic Realism or Horror? The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg

Laura van den Berg’s haunting new novel, The Third Hotel, defies classification.  Is it magic realism?  Is it horror?  It doesn’t quite matter:  this poetic, genre-crossing novel is eerily gorgeous. And it is more sophisticated than her  first book, Find Me, a beautifully-written dystopian novel about a plague of forgetfulness (which I wrote about here).

In The Third Hotel, the heroine, Clare, a widow, no longer understands the meaning of her life. She has been numb for some time, and is now mourning the loss of  her husband.  In December, she flies to Havana for the Festival of New Latin American Cinema he’d planned to attend.  Cuba is not her kind of place:  she is an elevator sales rep whose favorite state is Nebraska, because of the blandness and flatness. But her husband, Richard, killed in a hit-and-run accident in New York, was a scholar of horror films, and she wants to meet the director of the first horror film made in Cuba, Revolución Zombie.

Cuba is gorgeous, hot and disturbing:  dazed by beauty and unmarked streets, Clare keeps getting lost.  She calls her hotel the “Third Hotel,” because she had to ask concierges of two other hotels for directions before she found it.  Clare travels often for work and is usually at home in hotels, but she has seen some bizarre things. Once she found a human fingernail in a drawer–and that haunts her.

Van den Berg researched horror films exhaustively, and her analyses of the meaning of such films is enlightening.  Clare attends screenings, parties, and a panel discussion on a “zombie school.”  And then suddenly she catches sight of her husband, or thinks she does.  But what is she seeing?  It is easier for her to see it as a film through Richard’s eyes than to stop and wonder.

Screens were vehicles for the subjective, he had once written. No eye was objective and thus no lens could be either. In turn, the viewer’s response to the images became the third subjective eye, an invisible revelatory force. Screens and images revealed the viewer as much as they revealed to the viewer.

We’re not sure if he is the real Richard, a ghost, or a zombie.  As she follows him through the steamy streets, we feel that we are watching a film, and indeed she takes pictures with a camera.  Their eventual meetings are puzzling yet at the same time provide closure for Clare and the reader.  Van den Berg is a brilliant writer, and I admired this novel.  Supernatural meetings?  Maybe.  A lyrical, offbeat book.