I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 13 May 2014.
In a way, war stories never change. They are always tales of disillusionment, mortal terror, psychological horror, wrenching violence. It is fitting, then, that Jonathan Bennett weaves together the oldest recorded war story with some of the newest conflicts in The Colonial Hotel.
Helen is an experienced frontline nurse. Paris is a doctor who met her while working somewhere in Africa, fell in love with her, and began to follow her from war zone to war zone. Both of them address their stories to their daughter. Helen has just revealed to Paris that she’s carrying their child as a civil war breaks out in the unnamed town where they’re staying. They meet for breakfast at the Colonial Hotel just as soldiers from the North take over. Helen and Paris are quickly separated. Helen is spirited away due to her connections. Paris is not so lucky. He is held for ransom by the Colonel.
Helen describes her escape to the capital city, staying to try and get Paris out of danger. She is prepared to brave anything, she thinks. When a bomb goes off in the middle of the supposedly stable capital, Helen realizes that—much as she loves Paris—her priority must be to her growing child. Bennett lets Paris carry the second third of the book as he tells his daughter about being moved from here to there as the war rages on. He tells of long years in prison. He talks about his father, Priam, the distant politician. Years past and it becomes clear that Paris has been forgotten. The last third of The Colonial Hotel is narrated in turns by Paris and Oenone, the woman who finds and rescues Paris from starving to death in prison.
Nearly all the characters’ names come from The Iliad: Paris, Helen, Priam, Hector, Oenone. Bennett’s writing is elegiac, but not ornate. There’s a sense of deep melancholy in this book, along with the terror, horror, violence, and disillusionment you seen in all war stories. Bennett never raises his authorial eyes from his characters’ direct experience. You only learn a little of why this unnamed country is tearing itself apart. You don’t really need to know why there is fighting because nothing can be worth the price the citizens are paying. In The Iliad, honor was everything. In The Colonial Hotel, life is the most precious thing.