If 2015 is to be a year defined by refugees and terrorism, Sunny Singh’s remarkable novel Hotel Arcadia should play a part. Although brief and nominally a thriller, Singh’s third novel is equally a deep meditation on empathy and engagement.
The eponymous hotel in an unidentified middle eastern (I think) location is the subject of a terrorist attack, leaving many staff and guests murdered, and the remaining few hiding desperately. Somehow hotel manager Abhi survives and tries to warn the guests discreetly by phone. One guest is acclaimed war photographer Sam on holiday after her latest assignment, who ignores warnings and heads out with her camera. Over the next 67 hours Sam explores and reports, whilst Abhi liaises with the army outside. Gradually they develop a trust and affection that helps them focus. Then Sam finds a young boy, Billy, injured but alive and is forced to take care of him whilst awaiting rescue or discovery and death. Tensions increase as chapters countdown, the first is labelled ’67 Hours Ago’ the last, ‘Now’. The thriller aspect is carefully weighted as the time progresses, as fear shifts through exhaustion to acceptance. Early chapters are set hourly, later at increased intervals reflecting events.
Against all of this are fascinating backstories for Abhi and Sam which not only add poignancy and make us care more, but also serve as metaphor for the situation in the hotel and beyond.
Immaculate, formal, respectable manager Abhi is gay, involved with a regular guest, spending illicit nights together. His enhanced formalities are a cover for his love, but alongside are memories, idolising his soldier hero brother Samar. Recurrently it is Samar’s voice he hears as he debates action. Childhood realisation that he can’t be like Samar give way to understanding at the cost of a relationship with his father.
Sam meanwhile, is emotionally detached, holding her lover at a distance, photographing only the dead, only really seeing the world through a viewfinder.
In this she is joined by Abhi, watching her creep through the hotel on cctv, anxiously building pictures outside the camera angles as Sam tries to occlude them. In this structural sympathy Sam and Abhi develop an empathy that surprises both. Sam finds that she feels things for lover David she has tried to avoid, Abhi tries to avoid the knowledge that his lover Dieter is one of the bodies in the bar.
Sunny Singh has deftly, evocatively, tied our personal lives to global political situations. There’s a fleeting encounter in Sam’s past with refugees that captures this perfectly. And in the present, we are almost never shown the terrorists only their impact.
Hotel Arcadia isn’t perfect, plotwise. I wondered how Abhi was able to hide and observe from reception, for instance. Emotionally it works very well, right up to a movingly ambiguous ending. Politically Singh asks subtle questions about how we engage with each other on individual and global scales, and the similarities between the two. It’s a rare novel that succeeds as well as Hotel Arcadia as entertainment, with such emotional and political insight.
Hotel Arcadia is published by Quartet Books.