Author: Dominic Smith
ISBN: 978 1 76052 862 1
Publication Date: June 2019
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Copy: Courtesy of the Publisher
“The Electric Hotel” is a really wonderful novel that combines meticulously researched historical detail with a compelling character study and story which captivated me from the opening pages.
As a young man, Frenchman Claude Ballard is eking out a living as a photographer for a medical researcher, photographing lunatics, hysterics, and others of interest to the doctor. One night he sees one of the first silent movies – only a few minutes long, and reliant purely on the amazement of actually seeing pictures move. But he’s mesmerised, and within weeks has found the money for a moving camera of his own, won a position as a concession agent for the inventors, and headed to Los Angeles to sell tickets to movie shows.
Claude is something of a visionary, and is soon working out how to edit small strips of film together so that they can show clips that last more than a few seconds. It’s only a small step from there to begin making movies with actual stories and characters. Claude’s success grows, and he takes with him a small group of associates: notable among them is Sabine Montrose, the actress who seduces and inspires him.
But as the novel opens, Claude is a barely remembered figure, living alone at a run down Hollywood hotel, foraging for mushrooms and taking photos no-one will ever see. When a film student visits him, it opens him up to memories of the past.
I really enjoyed this novel. Although there’s clearly been a lot of research done to ensure the story is as historically accurate as possible, it’s woven seamlessly into the narrative and you never feel you’re being regaled with facts. The setting is a period which is relatively recent and yet which already feels so distant in time; and we all think we know something about the movies, don’t we? This novel opens up a seam of truly fascinating detail that makes me, at least, want to run off and read non-fiction on the subject. It’s a brilliant way of casting a different light on a subject that most readers will already think they know a bit about.
It’s the characters who draw you in and involve you in their story. Most of these characters have lifestyles readers won’t empathise with, but their feelings and problems are empathetic and engaging. Smith has an interestingly remote tone in the novel – a lack of punctuation for dialog, for example – which suits the sense of an era which has already passed. It won’t distance readers from the characters, though – if anything, it seems to amplify their feelings.
Overall, this is an excellent novel which will be particularly enjoyed by readers looking for strong characters. It will also have appeal to those wanting to painlessly absorb a little information about the dawn of the movie making industry.
Smith’s first novel, “The Last Painting of Sara de Vos” similarly combined historical detail with a strong story that fascinated me; I highly recommend it, too.
This guest review was submitted by Lorraine Cormack, one of our long-time Beauty and Lace Club members. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us Lorraine.
The Electric Hotel is available now through Allen and Unwin and where all good books are sold.