Jonathan Bennett wants it all. He wants his latest book, The Colonial Hotel, to be a thriller, a literary homage, a political intrigue, a romance and a story about the act of storytelling itself. What’s amazing is not his audacity but the fact that he pulls it off.
The Colonial Hotel is an adaptation of the Helen and Paris myth, set in an unnamed war-ravaged country and starring a couple of aid workers. The lovers are torn apart when rebels overrun their town, and their stories are told through letters to their child.
There is much to grapple with in The Colonial Hotel, even though the book is elegantly slim — Bennett actually reworked it from an earlier long poem. The international politics and personal drama of the separated lovers would be enough to carry most novels. But Bennett is known for complex, multi-layered books that most writers can only dream of writing. Reading The Colonial Hotel is like wandering the halls of an actual hotel, opening the doors of every room you pass and finding a different story inside each one.
The novel is set in the wreckage of colonialism, but Bennett is careful not to name the country. Readers are forced to decide where the events are taking place and why. The very act of reading becomes political, as readers become aware of and perhaps even question their own biases and assumptions. It quickly becomes clear that the “colonial” in the title of the book is carefully chosen.
In the hands of a lesser writer, The Colonial Hotel could easily wind up being a trite and tired political fable. But Bennett is a master writer, and he has the gift of a poetic voice as well. The novel is a literary wonder, with its spare but crafted lines singing in the reader’s imagination like an epic poem. It’s the sort of work other writers love, because it is a beautiful yet merciless story of life itself while at the same time honouring the fact that life is, at its essence, the stories we tell ourselves.