The Glass Hotel

Emily St. John Mandel

March 24, 2020 
The following is excerpted from Emily St. John Mandel's upcoming novel, The Glass Hotel. Her four previous novels include Station Eleven, which was a finalist for a National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award and has been translated into thirty-two languages. She lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.

Why don’t you swallow broken glass. Words scrawled in acid paste on the glass eastern wall of the Hotel Caiette, etched trails of white dripping from several letters.

“Who would write something like that?” The only guest to have seen the vandalism, an insomniac shipping executive who’d checked in the day before, was sitting in one of the leather armchairs with a whiskey that the night manager had brought him. It was a little past two-thirty in the morning.

“Not an adult, presumably,” the night manager said. His name was Walter, and this was the first graffiti he’d seen in his three years on the property. The message had been written on the outside of the glass. Walter had taped a few sheets of paper over the message and was presently moving a potted rhododendron to cover the paper, with the assistance of Larry, the night porter. The bartender on duty, Vincent, was polishing wineglasses while she watched the action from behind the bar at the far end of the lobby. Walter had considered recruiting her to help move the planter, because he could use another set of hands and the night houseman was on a dinner break, but she didn’t strike him as a particularly robust person.

“It’s unnerving, isn’t it?” the guest said.

“I don’t disagree. But I think,” Walter said, with more confidence than he felt, “that this could only have been the work of a bored adolescent.” In truth, he was deeply shaken and was taking refuge in efficiency. He stepped back to consider the rhododendron. The leaves almost but not entirely covered the taped paper. He glanced at Larry, who gave him a this-is-the-best-we- can-do shrug and went outside with a garbage bag and a roll of tape to cover the message from the other side.

“It’s the specificity of it,” the guest said. “Disturbing, isn’t it?”

“I’m so sorry you had to see it, Mr. Prevant.”

“No one should have to see a message like that.” A quaver of distress in Leon Prevant’s voice, which he covered with a quick swallow of whiskey. On the other side of the window, Larry had folded the garbage bag into a neat strip and was taping it over the message.

“I agree completely.” Walter glanced at his watch. Three in the morning, three hours remaining on his shift. Larry had resumed his post by the door. Vincent was still polishing glasses. He went to speak to her, and saw when he did that she had tears in her eyes.

“You okay there?” he asked softly.

“It’s just so awful,” she said, without looking up. “I can’t imagine what kind of person would write something like that.”

“I know,” he said. “But I’m standing by my bored-teenager theory.”

“You believe that?”

“I can convince myself of it,” he said.

Walter went to see if Mr. Prevant needed anything—he didn’t—and then returned to his inspection of the glass wall. Only one more guest was expected that night, a VIP, his flight delayed. Walter lingered by the glass wall for a few minutes, looking out at the reflection of the lobby superimposed on the darkness, before he returned to the desk to write the incident report.


“The property’s in the middle of nowhere,” Walter’s general manager had told him, at their first meeting in Toronto three years ago, “but that’s precisely the point.”

This first meeting was in a coffee shop by the lake, the coffee shop actually built on the pier, boats bobbing nearby. Raphael, the general manager, lived on the property of the Hotel Caiette, along with almost everyone else who worked there, but had come to Toronto to attend a hospitality conference and poach talent from other hotels. The Hotel Caiette had been open since the mid-nineties, but had recently been redone in what Raphael called Grand West Coast Style, which seemed to involve exposed cedar beams and enormous panes of glass. Walter was studying the ad campaign photos that Raphael had slid across the table. The hotel was a glass-and-cedar palace at twilight, lights reflected on water, the shadows of the forest closing in.

“What you said earlier,” Walter said, “about it not being accessible by car?” He felt he must have misunderstood something in the initial presentation.

“I mean exactly that. Access to the hotel is by boat. There are no roads in or out. Are you somewhat familiar with the geography of the region?”

“Somewhat,” Walter lied. He’d never been that far west. His impression of British Columbia was akin to a series of postcards: whales leaping out of blue water, green shorelines, boats.

“Here.” Raphael was shuffling through papers. “Take a look at this map.” The property was represented as a white star in an inlet at the north end of Vancouver Island. The inlet nearly broke the island in half. “It’s wilderness up there,” Raphael said, “but let me tell you a secret about wilderness.”

“Please do.”

“Very few people who go to the wilderness actually want to experience the wilderness. Almost no one.” Raphael leaned back in his chair with a little smile, presumably hoping that Walter might ask what he meant, but Walter waited him out. “At least, not the people who stay in five-star hotels,” Raphael said. “Our guests in Caiette want to come to the wilderness, but they don’t want to be in the wilderness. They just want to look at it, ideally through the window of a luxury hotel. They want to be wilderness-adjacent. The point here”—he touched the white star with one finger, and Walter admired his manicure— “is extraordinary luxury in an unexpected setting. There’s an element of surrealism to it, frankly. It’s a five-star experience in a place where your cell phone doesn’t work.”

“How do you bring in guests and supplies?” Walter was having some difficulty grasping the appeal of the place. It was undeniably beautiful but geographically inconvenient, and he wasn’t sure why your average executive would want to vacation in a cellular dead zone.

“On a speedboat. It’s fifteen minutes from the town of Grace Harbour.”

“I see. Aside from the undeniable natural beauty,” Walter said, trying a different tack, “would you say there’s a distinguishing factor that sets this hotel apart from similar properties?”

“I was hoping you’d ask me that. The answer’s yes. There’s a sense of being outside of time and space.”

“Outside of . . . ?”

“A figure of speech, but it’s not far off.” Raphael loved the hotel, Walter could see that. “The truth of the matter is, there’s a certain demographic that will pay a great deal of money to escape temporarily from the modern world.”

Later, walking home through the autumn night, temporary escape from the world was an idea that Walter couldn’t let go. In those days he was renting a cramped one-bedroom on a street that felt somehow between neighborhoods. It was the most depressing apartment he’d ever seen, which for reasons he refused to articulate was why he’d chosen it. Elsewhere in the city, the ballet dancer to whom Walter had been engaged until two months ago was setting up house with a lawyer.

Walking home through the autumn night, temporary escape from the world was an idea that Walter couldn’t let go.

Walter stopped into the usual grocery store on his way home that evening, and the thought of stopping into this store again tomorrow, and then the day after that, and then the day after that, slow strolls down the frozen-food aisle interspersed with shifts at the hotel where he’d been working for the past decade, a day older every time, the city closing in around him, well, it was unbearable, actually. He placed a package of frozen corn in his basket. What if this was the last time he ever performed this action, here in this particular store? It was an appealing thought.

He’d been with the ballet dancer for twelve years. He hadn’t seen the breakup coming. He’d agreed with his friends that he shouldn’t make any sudden moves. But what he wanted in those days was to disappear, and by the time he reached the checkout counter he realized that he’d made his decision. He accepted the position; arrangements were made; on the appointed day a month later he flew to Vancouver and then caught a connecting flight to Nanaimo on a twenty-four-seat prop plane that barely reached the clouds before descending, spent the night in a hotel, and set off the next day for the Hotel Caiette. He could have saved considerable time by flying into one of the tiny airports further north, but he wanted to see more of Vancouver Island.

It was a cold day in November, clouds low overhead. He drove north in a gray rental car through a series of gray towns with a gray sea intermittently visible on his right, a landscape of dark trees and McDonald’s drive-throughs and big-box stores under a leaden sky. He arrived at last in the town of Port Hardy, streets dim in the rain, where he got lost for a while before he found the place to return the rental car. He called the town’s only taxi service and waited a half hour until an old man arrived in a beat-up station wagon that reeked of cigarette smoke.

“You’re headed to the hotel?” the driver asked when Walter requested a ride to Grace Harbour.

“I am,” Walter said, but found that he didn’t particularly feel like making conversation after all of these hours of traveling in solitude. They drove in silence through the forest until they reached the village of Grace Harbour, such as it was: a few houses here and there along the road and shoreline, fishing boats in the harbor, a general store by the docks, a parking lot with a few old cars. He saw a woman through the window of the general store, but there was no one else around.

Walter’s instructions were to call the hotel for a boat. His cell phone didn’t work up here, as promised, but there was a phone booth by the pier. The hotel promised to send someone within the half hour. Walter hung up and stepped out into cool air. It was getting on toward evening and the world was shifting to monochrome, the water pale and glassy under a darkening sky, shadows accumulating in the forest. He walked out to the end of the pier, luxuriating in the silence. This place was the opposite of Toronto, and wasn’t that what he’d wanted? The opposite of his previous life? Somewhere back in the eastern city, the ballet dancer and the lawyer were at a restaurant, or walking the streets holding hands, or in bed. Don’t think of it. Don’t think of it. Walter waited, listening, and for a while there was only the soft lapping of water against the pier and the occasional cry of a seagull, until in the distance he heard the vibration of an outboard motor. A few minutes later he saw the boat, a white fleck between the dark banks of forest, a toy that grew steadily until it was pulling up alongside the pier, the motor obscenely loud in all that quiet, wake splashing against pylons. The woman at the stern looked to be in her mid-twenties and wore a crisp, vaguely nautical uniform.

“You must be Walter.” She disembarked in a single fluid motion and lashed the boat to the dock. “I’m Melissa from the hotel. May I help with your bags?”

“Thank you,” he said. There was something startling about her, an air of apparition. He was almost happy, he realized, as the boat pulled away from the pier. There was a cold wind on his face, and he knew this was a voyage of no more than fifteen minutes, but he had an absurd sense of embarking on an adventure. They were moving so rapidly, darkness falling. He wanted to ask Melissa about the hotel, how long she’d been here, but the motor was prohibitively loud. When he glanced over his shoulder, the wake was a silver trail leading back to the scattered lights of Grace Harbour.

Melissa piloted them around the peninsula and the hotel was before them, an improbable palace lit up against the darkness of the forest, and for the first time Walter understood what Raphael had meant when he’d talked about an element of surrealism. The building would have been beautiful anywhere, but placed here, it was incongruous, and its incongruity played a part in the enchantment. The lobby was exposed like an aquarium behind a wall of glass, all cedar pillars and slate floors. A double row of lights illuminated the path to the pier, where a doorman—Larry—met them with a trolley. Walter shook Larry’s hand and followed his luggage up the path to the hotel’s grand entrance, to the reception desk, where Raphael stood waiting with a concierge smile. After introductions, dinner, and paperwork, Walter eventually found himself in a suite on the top floor of the staff lodge, whose windows and terrace looked out into trees. He closed the curtains against the darkness and thought about what Raphael had said, about the hotel’s existing outside of time and space. There’s such happiness in a successful escape.

By the end of his first year in Caiette, Walter realized that he was happier here than he’d ever been anywhere, but in the hours following the graffiti, the forest outside seemed newly dark, the shadows dense and freighted with menace. Who stepped out of the forest to write the message on the window? The message was written backward on the glass, Walter wrote on the incident report, which suggests it was meant to be viewed from the lobby.


Excerpted from The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel. Copyright © 2020 by Emily St. John Mandel. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

More Story
Young William Faulkner in the French Quarter Spanish moss, rumbling streetcars, honking automobiles, street vendors, artists, prostitutes, nuns, tourists, speakeasies,...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.