Hotel Alpha by Mark Watson | Book review by Steve Bennett

Hotel Alpha by Mark Watson

Book review by Steve Bennett

Mark Watson’s fifth novel is set in a majestic London hotel, the sort of elegant haunt favoured by celebrities, society and other players that is both fashionable and timeless. The story unfolds at a glacial pace over 30 years, ignoring the daily comings and-and-goings of guests as flitting incidents compared to the history of such a grand building.

It feels as if the magnificent Hotel Alpha itself should be a main character in the drama, but it isn’t, not really. Instead we focus primarily on the long-standing concierge, Graham, taken on by the charismatic showman of an owner, Harold York, when he first decided to restore the landmark to its former glory. His unusual recruitment technique shows the flamboyance and flair of the man… as well as the author.

The story subsequently plays out almost like a upmarket soap opera. There is, for starters, a dreadful fire that sweeps through the establishment, killing one of the residents, blinding and orphaning her five-year-old son, Chas, who is adopted by the Yorks and becomes another cornerstone of the hotel.

Chapters alternate between Graham and Chas’s voices, giving an interesting change of perspective and allowing both characters to developed, which is Watson’s strength. His characters, even minor ones, are sympathetic and credible – people you feel you want to spend time with.

Graham is a decent, old-fashioned chap, fiercely loyal, who prides himself on his ability to attend to his guests’ every need. At first his dedication to both duty and detail prove essential, but when computers start arriving, the smoking room eventually giving way to a business suite, he starts feeling a little like a relic, his talents no longer appreciated by guests who can google what they want.

For Chas, though, the technology is a godsend. A shut-in at the hotel, it becomes his gateway to the world and all the information in it, which he devours ravenously. It’s surely a challenge to write from the angle of someone with no visual references at all, but one Watson rises to, portraying the character’s rise in confidence as he matures.

The plot is a little less assured, pivoting, it turns out, on a big secret that both binds Graham and the well-connected Howard – and which could ultimately ruin their half-lifetime of friendship. It becomes something of an overtly melodramatic device, following a couple of mysterious staff departures, particularly as things come to a head in a climax set against real events in London.

For dramatic purposes, something has to derail the narrative train, but this seems atypically disingenuous.

Still, the strong characterisation, especially of the two narrators, keeps you hooked, and Watson puts his comic instincts on hold to keep the story straight. His impulse to do something big and unusual, as evidenced by his Edinburgh frolics, remains intact, though – and the gimmick here is 100 mini-stories, based around the characters and events of the novel, which have been published online. Parallels to the hyperlinks that made Chas so insatiably curious about the world are inevitable as the reader dips in and out of this additional content.

And well they might; for who wouldn’t want to extend their stay at Hotel Alpha?

• Hotel Alpha by Mark Watson has been published by Picador, priced £14.99. Click here to buy from Foyles for £11.24.

Published: 1 Sep 2014

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