Friday 7 March 2014

Zenith Hotel by Oscar Coop-Phane

Zenith Hotel is a startling, darkly beautiful book. At less than a hundred pages long, it doesn't mess around with introductions, dragging you straight in to the squalor of a Parisian streetwalker's life:
When I wake up, my teeth feel furry. There's a foul taste in my mouth - a nasty sort of animal taste. Still, it's better than at night, when I have the aftertaste of other people and their filth.
This is the start of Nanou's day, a day of great hardships and small comforts. There's very little back-story, so we don't know what's brought her to this sordid existence. She smokes in bed, drinks coffee and writes without knowing why:
It's not vital, it's not therapeutic. I don't know, I write to keep my hands occupied, like doodling on Post-its when you're on the phone. ..I'm a pen-pushing old slag. How about that?

Between Nanou's words are interludes; individual character sketches of her clients, each one inhabiting a perfectly encapsulated world. Coop-Phane bringing to life the lonely and dispossessed, the mad and sad on the fringes of existence, in a way that earns your sympathy. There's a warmth here, an affection for his characters despite, or maybe because of, their failures:
Robert is a sponge. He soaks up events and people, retaining everything in his thick, yellow foam. But, at some point, if someone grabs him, if he's crushed in the metro or in a cinema queue, he spews out everything in a stream of insults and platitudes
You begin to understand why Robert might seek small solace with Nanou.

This isn't a familiar Paris but a vision of raw brutality, which makes the connections, glimpsed between Nanou and her clients, all the more extraordinary. In the midst of the detritus are precious shards of humanity. But this isn't just one day for her, it's the bleakness of every day:
The rest is chit-chat, answering their questions, laughing at their jokes - that's another form of prostitution.
The words of Coop-Phane are so much more poetic than mine that I could go on quoting him shamelessly. He was just twenty-three when he wrote Zenith Hotel, which won the Prix de Flore in 2012 and has now been translated from the French by Ros Schwartz.

Coop-Phane writes with economy in short, sharp sentences which hit home and stay with you long after you've finished. This, his first published work, has a visceral power which doesn't always make it an easy read. Despite that, searching for a flaw, I could only think it should have been longer, so I wasn't able to devour it all in one sitting. His next novel, Tomorrow, Berlin is due out in 2015 and personally, I can't wait.

Zenith Hotel is published by Arcadia Books on 30th March 2014. The jacket cover features quotes from book bloggers and twitter, which I love (and envy!).
Thanks to Arcadia Books for my review copy.

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