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Monday, 25 April 2011

The Pink Hotel


The value of identity of course is that so often with it comes purpose. – Richard R. Grant

When I first picked up my ARC of the Pink Hotel I can’t say I was enthusiastic it’s probably fair to say. It’s the word ‘pink’. Perhaps a bloke ages with my daughter wouldn’t have any problems with reading a book called The Pink Hotel on the Clydeside Expressway first thing in the morning but I’d probably be hiding mine inside a copy of The Bourne Identity or something. Much to my surprise I found that the book is very much like the one I’ve finished writing. The main difference is the protagonist is seventeen and wandering around Venice Beach whereas mine is fifty and stuck in a flat in Glasgow. But the core is the same. This is a book about identity.

I was never adopted as a child and to be fair neither is the protagonist in this book but she may as well have been. When she was three her mother, Lily Dakin, who would have only been seventeen herself at the time, upped and left and her daughter never saw her again. Her father eventually married but never talked much about his ex. In fact when he gets a phone call telling him that Lily has died he doesn’t even inform his daughter. She only finds out when she answers a second phone call to advise her when the wake is to take place. It turns out it’s in L.A. and she’s in London. So, what does she do? She nicks her stepmother’s credit card, buys a plane ticket and heads off.

I knew a girl once who was adopted and she was quite obsessed about finding out details about her birth mum. She acted as if her character was something temporary, that she couldn’t be her real self until she knew where she came from. It was as if she needed to make contact with this woman to validate her identity; that being who she had turned out to be was who she ought to have turned out to be. Needless to say when she did locate her birth mother it was a bittersweet experience and left her with a very confused sense of self. I dropped Anna an e-mail for her thoughts:

I think that's a really nice way of putting it. I find mother/daughter relationships fascinating: it's the first relationship, primal and unending complicated all at the same time. The girl wants to know what mistakes her mother made and what experiences her mother had, so that she can work out what she wants from life, and who she might turn out to be.

Lily’s daughter is already mixed-up. But then she’s seventeen and who of us wasn’t mixed-up when we were that age? She’s not a bad girl and really the worst thing she’s done in her life is a bit of shoplifting (and once she is finally caught trying to pocket a pair of £1.99 earrings from Woolworths, that is enough to put pay to that). Until, as I’ve said, she swipes her stepmother’s card and heads off to the States.

Lily’s daughter is never named in the book. I wondered why and asked Anna:

RebeccaThe daughter's name isn't mentioned, which is partly a nod to Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, where the unnamed narrator struggles to find her place inside another woman's world. But it's also … to underline her lack of identity. She imagines herself to be invisible, she wears anonymous clothes, is a thief, a voyeur, and she doesn't ever refer to her own name. 

The book opens with the girl slipping into her late mother’s bedroom which is on the top floor of the eponymous pink hotel. The wake/partying is carrying on in earnest down below. It’s a far cry from her Dad’s café even if she can still smell the place on her skin (anyone who’s ever worked in a chippy will tell you the smell lingers). But that’s not the only thing that smells:

Her bedroom reeked of cigarette ash and stale perfume. Two ashtrays were packed with lipstick-stained filters as if she’d just popped out for another pack. A suspender belt hung from a set of drawers, a mink scarf was curled like road kill at the floor next to her bed.


Lily stared out at me from framed photographs around the room. In one photograph she was standing beside a motorcycle wearing a leather jacket. In another she was wearing a white T-shirt over a bikini and sitting cross-legged under a tree in the sunshine, laughing for the camera. In a third she was naked apart from vivid red lipstick and a floppy sunhat.

So this was her mother, her residua, effluvia and discardia at least.

If it is possible to feel nostalgia for things you’ve never known, then it was a mixture of nostalgia and curiosity that made me lie down on her sheets and run a bath in a tub scattered with millimetre-long armpit hairs caught on a tide of scum from the last time she or her husband took a bath.

Peeking through the bathroom keyhole she witnesses a confrontation between two men, a red-haired man (who she assumes is Lily’s husband) and a giant of a man, who, until we learn his name is David, she simply refers to as The Giant. David has also sneaked into Lily’s room intent on stealing one of the photos. Her husband, Richard, is not best pleased and throws him out. Both are very drunk and after that encounter Richard collapses on the bed unconscious. At this point the girl decided it might be a good idea not to be there and so she beats a hasty retreat but not without filling a suitcase with some of her mother’s clothes. Richard notices her leave, registers his disapproval, but he’s in no condition to pursue her.

The case when she first found it already contained postcards, letters, photos and even old certificates and evaluation reports from her job, basically all a daughter could ask for by ways of clues to her wayward mother’s life. I suppose it could be argued that it was all too convenient and easy and that the clues are laid out for her and perhaps they are. It’s a niggle but more things happen in TV detective shows that are clearly stamped on the back “necessary-to-move-the-plot-forward” and we let them away with it so let’s just accept this as a fortunate happenstance and move on.

I had hoped to find a picture of Dad or of me among the rubble of memories tucked away in the suitcase, but the pictures were mostly of Lily herself.


In a side pocket of the suitcase were Christmas and Birthday cards all bundled together along with postcards and letters. Some of the cards were from the man called Teddy from the debonair “Malibu Mansions” photo. The most arresting letters were the ones typed on thin paper and signed off “with love, for ever, for always” rather than with a name.

The next day, feeling a little guilty, she tries to return the case but Richard is refusing to see anyone and a concierge girl tells her that he’s asleep and to call back later. Now, of course, the girl could easily have left the case at the reception but that wouldn’t advance the story very far now would it?

Having time on her hands she delves further into the contents of the case and after discovering “a faded Polaroid, labelled “Lily Dakin marries August Walters, in Jackpot, Idaho” decides to look up people from her mother’s life beginning with August. From here on she starts a journey through her mother’s past which, bit by bit, starts to become her life. In fact it starts with her dressing in the clothes she stole from the wake. Again a little convenient that she’s the same dress and shoe size. But moving on… In her e-mail Anna said:

Lily's daughter wants to find out what fantasy-land and love-affairs she was abandoned in favour of. Lily – for all her faults – turns out to have been loved, greatly, which the daughter has never felt. So there's jealousy there too, and anger. The idea of validating, or discovering, identity is spot on.

gilgameshWhile she’s on her travels, on buses that take three hours to get anywhere or simply waiting around for people, she reads a novel she snatched “from next to Lily’s bed at the Pink Hotel. It was called Enkidu [and] [a]ccording to the back cover, the book was based on some old epic poem about a black-eyed man-beast named Enkidu who grew up among animals.” The poem is, of course, the Epic of Gilgamesh and I had to wonder why Anna chose this. The latter part of the epic focuses on Gilgamesh's distressed reaction to Enkidu's death, which takes the form of a quest for immortality so I suppose there are loose parallels with the girl’s quest to discover herself. The two are also very different characters and yet become firm friends. This is what she had to say:

I saw a version of this, years ago, in a used bookstore and SO wish I'd bought it. I think ideas of immortality and death are definitely important, but it's also (the trashy version in The Pink Hotel, not the original!) a weird bridge in the girl's appreciation of bodies and their possibilities. She's a violent kid – football, violence, enjoys pain – and in many ways, like her mother perhaps, she's a little bit of a masochist. Her mother's physicality interests her.

To go into any more detail would spoil the book but there was a reason I chose the quote by Richard Grant to open this article. This is a life-changing book. It might not change yours or mine but it does change the girl’s and although the subject matter is handled lightly (and maybe a little neatly for my tastes but I really don’t think I’m her target audience) the issues raised are nevertheless serious and thought provoking.

On the cover of the book there’s a quote from Helen Dunmore: “The quality of her writing is remarkable.” I’ve just sat and flicked through the book reading paragraphs at random to see if any bits were worth remarking about. I found two. The first is set in a hospice cafeteria; in a flashback the girl’s waiting with her dad for her grandfather to die when she notices this:

The light from the frosted windows was hitting the curl of the page – [she’s reading Yachting Digest] – in such a way that the photo was almost obscured by a pillar of white glaze, but underneath there was a small white boat, photographed from above, ploughing through water. My throat tightened with the atmosphere, and I glanced up. “Desiderium,” I thought to myself, “a yearning for something that you once had, but is now lost.” It was a lovely word, like “desire” and “delirious” and “dearest” all smudged into one.

Now that is a lovely description and frankly the title I might have gone with for the whole book, Desiderium, rather than The Pink Hotel, but that’s me. Then I found this next description which is remarkable for all the wrong reasons:

I was wearing Lily’s tight black knee-length dress and a vivid smudge of her red lipstick over my mouth this time. Her earrings framed my pale opal face, and her sunglasses kept the hair out of my eyes.

That is just groan-worthy I’m afraid but there aren’t too many examples like that and my copy is only an ARC; that might well have been trimmed before the final print run. Maybe it’s just because I’m a man (although when I read that sentence to my wife she just pulled a face that said everything) but to my tastes there are simply far too many descriptive passages in this book. They don’t feel like padding but they do slow down the pace as far as I’m concerned. Few of them were remarkable enough to keep my interest and I had to work hard not to skim. I guess it’s all matter of preference. In her review of Stothard’s first novel, for example, Geraldine Bedell had this to say:

Stothard's real strength is in the detail of her observations. In London, in summer, old poisons perspire from the bricks; in winter, the city crisps up and 'it looks as if the only liquid in it is bird droppings and spilt petrol'. A headstone is black marble 'with gold embossed words like the front of a thriller book'. – Geraldine Bedell, ‘Young people today…’, The Observer, 6th April 2003

For me on the plus side the story is cleanly told with no subplot. A few flashbacks flesh out the protagonist nicely and I probably enjoyed them the most since they were all set in the UK. I found her protagonist a bit on the young side but then she is young and I found L.A. superficial but then it is. The book certainly isn’t overrun with cardboard (or clichéd) characters and all the supporting cast are reasonably well rounded and have distinct personalities and voices. It’s a quick read and perfect for the beach or a plane ride; 280 pages, 43 chapters – you can do the maths.

Back in 2003 when her first novel which focuses on the incestuous relationship of a teenage brother and sister (invariably bringing comparison with Flowers in the Attic) she was “being touted”, as Marianne Macdonald put in the Evening Standard, “as the Next Big Thing and shows every sign of becoming it.” If memory serves right that is exactly what happened to Virginia Andrews back in 1979. I’ve not read Isabel and Rocco so I’m not sure if I would agree with that based on this second book but frankly statements like that usually do more harm than good and hang round authors’ necks like albatrosses. And considering the fact she’s only in her mid-twenties she has plenty of time ahead of her.


anna2Anna was born in London. She lived in Washington DC as a child, but grew up mostly in London with interludes in Beijing and New York. She studied English Literature at Oxford. Her father is former Times editor Peter Stothard and her mother is Sally Emerson, the novelist.

After university she moved to Los Angeles and was awarded a screenwriting scholarship at The American Film Institute. She lived in East Hollywood and spent two years reading LA noir novels, script supervising, painting sets, and getting lost on the labyrinthine public transport system because she refused to buy a car.

Anna loved Los Angeles: the obsession with story, the sprawling geography, even the gloom of failed actresses in Disney costumes on Hollywood Boulevard. She realized she needed to leave the city when there was coroner’s tape around her local liquor store and her first thought wasn’t ‘I hope nobody I know has been hurt’, but ‘I wonder if I can use this murder scene as a plot device.’ She has since moved back to London.

She began writing ‘Teenage Kicks’ a weekly column in the Observer while she was doing her GCSEs and has also written for the Sunday Telegraph, as well as other freelance journalism. Her first novel, Isabel and Rocco, was published in 2004. She is currently writing her third novel.


I don’t want to give away too much of the plot but I did find the following article in The Guardian of interest and the article in The Independent is just a nice autobiographical piece. A lot of the other stuff I found online is about university life and not really relevant to this book.

‘Teenage girls flirt with older men – but only because boys are hideous’The Guardian, 9th February 2003

‘Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Anna Stothard, student and writer’The Independent, 15th May 2003


Dave King said...

I like the sound of this, but them I'm a sucker for books about identity. I was intrigued to read that there are no sub plots, as I listened to someone (I think on the Book Show, but can't quite place who it was) explaining at great length how a novel couldn't work without subplots. Might be worth buying, if only to prove that point one way or another!

Jim Murdoch said...

Finally, Dave, I thought no one was going to take a shine to this book at all. As far as subplots go I missed The Book Show yesterday but I’ll catch it tonight. Anyway whoever that was was talking though a hole in their head. There are many books that simply start at A and end up at B and don’t go anywhere in between. None of my novels have subplots – asides, yes – but that’s as far as I go. What a stupid thing to say.

Art Durkee said...

The Gligamesh theme, or sub-theme, is intrguing, if only in that we cannot get away from our deepest myths: they keep recurring and re-appearing in our lives, as stories both fresh and personal even when we know they're ancient and universal. This was a lesson mythologist Joseph Campbell spent a lot of time reminding us about. (And he got the idea, fully credited, from Jung, with the archetypes, etc.)

The appearance of the Gilgamesh epic in such a frankly light modern novel might add resonance and depth to the story. I hope it does. I'm not sure I'd feel like bothering, otherwise. Although I do like the film noir echoes.

Archetypal echoes aren't subplots, they're the essence of what echoes and becomes sublime.

Jim Murdoch said...

The appearance of Gligamesh was a little surprising, Art, and in some respects a bit out of place in, as you say, a light modern novel. I’ll be honest she could have done more with it; a bit of a missed opportunity.

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm sold on it. Your Amazon shares are on the up again!

Jim Murdoch said...

Honest, Dick, I don't have any shares in Amazon. I just call it as I see it. I might have thought this was a little light for you but what's wrong with that, eh?

Dave King said...

Well, I'm glad we agree about that, anyway.

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