Reading Ali Smith's "Hotel World" must be what it's like to attend a séance as a skeptic. For a while, you're unable to make up your mind whether Smith is really channeling the spirits or pulling off some sleek tricks. The answer is a little of both.
"Hotel World," Smith's second novel and a finalist for Britain's Booker Prize, consists of five sections about five women, all of them, for various reasons, drawn to a branch of a luxe global hotel chain in an unnamed English city. There's a desk clerk, the homeless woman to whom she gives a room for the night, a correspondent for a service that evaluates hotel chains, the ghost of a teenage chambermaid who's fallen down a dumbwaiter shaft and the dead girl's younger sister. Although Smith stays resolutely within the separate consciousness of each character, she traces the ways they cross each other's paths, even if those chance meetings only accentuate their individual isolation.
Smith is so deft with language that it's easy, at first, to mistake "Hotel World" for an exercise in style. The internal rhymes and echoes ("They were relieved to be leaving"), elisions ("Cn y spr sm chg? Thnk y") and extended displays of verbal peacockery blend in as pleasingly as swirls of cake batter going through a blender. In the following passage, the dead chambermaid tries to remember how long it took her to fall to her death:
"... this time I'd count as I went, one elephant two eleph-ahh) if I could feel it again, how I hit it, the basement, from four floors up, from toe to head, dead. Dead leg. Dead arm. Dead hand. Dead eye. Dead I, four floors between me and the world, that's all it took to take me, that's the measure of it, the length and death of it, the short-goodb--."
A passage like that is dazzling, but also deceptive, the type of writing that can give a reader the notion that the book's chief pleasure will be on the level of literary word games. But Smith's is not a surface talent. As her monologue continues, the ghost, like a less innocent version of Emily in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," haunts her family's home, observing her funeral reception, the grief of those she's left. And then, in the chapter's unsettling finish, goes down into her own grave to quiz her corpse on the memories that (along with language itself) are receding from her.
That mood hovers over the rest of the book, which might be said to be about the unbearable lightness of nonbeing. The hotel -- the book's sixth major character -- offers the women who inhabit or haunt it anonymity, a chance to re-create or to hide, for a night or for an eternity, behind a new identity. And of course, they can't avoid being swept into each other's stories, becoming, in a sense, characters whose fates are beyond their own control, characters they never dreamed of being. "Hotel World" is a meditative riff on the thin membrane separating isolation from connection. All the book's living and dead come together in Smith's magnificent coda, a benediction and a release so vivid it can make you feel as if the spirits were rising off the page to fill the air around you. Smith may be a tricky writer, but her summoning powers are no stunt.