Sam, a war photographer infamous for her curious photographs of the dead, checks into Hotel Arcadia after an assignment to wind down, only for the war to turn the tables and come to her instead. Terrorists attack the hotel, taking hostages and killing many of the guests. What Sam initially views as another assignment to capture, turns into something more as she finds herself forming a connection via phone with the hotel manager, Abhi, who escapes to the security of his office. While Sam has spent a lifetime in the midst of war, Abhi has spent his life avoiding it, choosing a path different to the military career laid out for him by his father and brother. Yet now he finds himself in the middle of it, navigating the army outside the hotel, as well as Sam from the inside. As she daringly scouts the floors, Abhi secretly hopes to find out what has become of his lover, Dieter.
The story is told through the indirect third-person point of view of Abhi and Sam. Where one stops, the other picks up. Yet often the narrative backtracks a little when switching, in order to give each of the protagonists’ whole viewpoint, their thoughts, and actions. This works, yet often becomes repetitive when the reader is anxious to read the next segment.
“She finds the faces of the dead curiously mysterious, like deserted train stations, or abandoned towns, the bodies no longer home to that elusive, fragile sense of life.”
The themes of seeing, being seen, and different ways of watching are recurrent throughout the novel. Sam’s photographs do not simply capture the blood and dead bodies, but something more. For her, there is more to the photography than what pays the bills or is publicly appealing. It is more than a job or a hobby; it is a way of life, the lens through which she literally captures and processes the world. The lens that she shields herself behind, using it as a viewfinder, instead of her own eyes.
“It is more instinct than thought that makes her pull out her phone, switching on the camera, pulling the world back into focus within a clear rectangular boundary.”
The writing is very descriptive. It was easy to imagine the gunshots, the lavish hotel rooms, and even the locations of Sam’s past assignments. Sam’s almost military-like routines of packing and unpacking her camera equipment are described vividly. Sunny Singh has done her research thoroughly into photography as a craft, as well as various war stories. Sam’s attachment to her work, her reliability on it as an escape, and the only thing in her life that has structure and control is a distinct, defining characteristic. The point is reinforced through the novel. Here is a woman who is emotionally detached to the point that she pursues her career and passion at the cost of her relationship with the man that she loves. It was refreshing to read about a woman who doesn’t make the sacrifice and isn’t readily available. Similarly, the fact that she remains as non maternal as ever after discovering a boy trapped under the dead bodies of his parents, is another thing that Sunny Singh does well. It doesn’t become a clichéd plot device through which Sam finds her deeply buried motherly desires. Instead, she bandages the ‘kid’ up and does what any human would do, refusing to be defined by her gender.
The name of the city in which the novel is situated in is not mentioned, and neither are the ethnicities and backgrounds of the characters explored in great depth. I felt that this was a strong decision by the writer, who presented them ‘as they are’ without any big fuss. It stopped the novel from being grounded and boxed into categories and genres that would have distracted from the main focus. It prevented the stories from being defined by the ‘otherness’ of location and race. Instead, it brings the point home about how this could be any of us, with any of our stories, trapped inside hotel rooms.
The issues of terrorism, hostage situations and brutal murders are very reflective of the world that we live in, and the situation becomes a backdrop for the stories that Singh wants to tell us through her characters. It becomes a structure in which character development happens; locked up in rooms without a choice instead of running from issues, something both of the narrators have been doing all their lives.
The novel is not so much about plot twists and surprises – I particularly like the way it ends. It is instead about the survival of the hotel’s inhabitants. I found myself becoming concerned about the two protagonists and this, as well as the retelling of their individual stories and lives, is what kept the page turning. It is not about whether the army will successfully rescue the hotel’s inhabitants, but the emotional resolve that the two characters head towards; Abhi’s reconciliation with his family who disapproved of his homosexuality and non-military way of life evokes a lot of empathy. Sunny Singh depicts the troubles faced by LGBT BME people through Abhi’s character sophisticatedly and normatively, as it should be done.
The novel is about people. About loss, societal and familial expectations, and individualism. The reader is left to wonder how and if the two protagonists will return to their lives afterwards, making it a story that will stay with you.
Published by: Quartet Books
Find Sunny Singh on Twitter at: @sunnysingh_nw3
*Book was sent to me to review by the author, and I’m hugely glad I got to chance to read it!