Hotels are the ultimate fantasy residence, right? A place where someone else makes your bed and cleans up after you, where you can order food to your door any time of day or night, where you can meet people from all over the world without leaving the building, and where catering to your every whim is actually someone’s job.
And that’s why the setting for Mark Watson’s Hotel Alpha is so appealing – a high-end London hotel that is at the centre of the world. Key to the world of the Hotel Alpha is Graham, the concierge at the hotel since its boisterous owner Howard first opened it, and Chas, Howard’s blind adopted son who rarely leaves the hotel.
The book alternates between the perspectives of Graham and Chas, who seem initially like opposites. Graham is old and set in his ways, while Chas is young and enthusiastic about new tech. But really, both men’s differences actually turn out to mask similarities. Chas may be physically blind, but Graham purposefully chooses not to see what is happening in front of him. Both men rely on other people to jolt them into living, both live by routines, both are stuck in a rut while the world around them moves ahead at a pace, and both men will do anything for Howard.
Ah, Howard. He’s the charismatic, loud hotel owner who is everyone’s friend and hero. It’s he who gives Graham a job to dedicate himself to, and he who rescues Chas from the fire that blinds him, and then who provides him with a home and a family. And it’s Howard who throws lavish parties to help the homeless or to pep up the London 2012 bid team. Yet there was something about Howard that I never quite liked, and that was probably the fact that Graham and Chas have an idealistic view of him. While Graham and Chas describe Howard’s faults, they never quite realise them, whereas as readers, we can deduce exactly the type of person Howard is.
Watson creates a vibrant world in Hotel Alpha – it’s full of characters who fit perfectly in a hotel (savvy PR women, depressed middle-aged businessmen, and so on). Considering that we as readers rarely leave the hotel (and when we do it’s only to see the insides of other rooms most of the time), the novel is full of as much life as if Watson had taken us on a tour of the world. The day-to-day life of the hotel and how Graham and Chas dealt with it is what for me held the most fascination. The ‘mysteries’ that threaded through the novel let it down a little bit for me – one was easy to guess (and meant to be for the reader I think), and the other, when finally revealed, was not worth the build up. I think keeping that second mystery a mystery would have been a better option.
As well as telling the story of Graham and Chas, Hotel Alpha is also a potted history of modern London – we see/hear of familiar landmarks like the London Eye being constructed, and we live through the reign of Prime Ministers including Tony Blair. It’s a great way to see things – everything changing around the hotel, but the hotel always remaining a constant. And I loved being reminded of London of the recent past – it’s weird to note just how different the skyline was just over 15 years ago.
Apart from the blip with the mysteries, I thought Hotel Alpha was brilliant. We all secretly would love to live in a posh hotel for a while (at least I would) and I think Watson’s novel plays perfectly on that fantasy, while also creating a compelling story about two men who live and grow in a hotel. Five stars.
How I got this book: From the publisher, Picador. This did not affect my review.