Laura van den Berg is an artist of the uncanny. As with some surrealist painting, devour her work quickly and the trick will not snag. Perhaps the object in Magritte’s famous painting is just a pipe, or in the case of one of van den Berg’s imaginings, a woman training to be an assassin.
But how many women in fiction get to be assassins?
Story by story, and in her immensely stylish 2015 novel, “Find Me,’’ van den Berg has built an aesthetic around unraveling the assumptions upon which our sense of the strange rests.
Where women get to go and what they are allowed to do is where van den Berg often begins. Thus “The Third Hotel’’ opens in Havana, as Clare, our heroine, attends a horror film festival and seems to see everywhere her recently deceased husband, who was supposed to attend with her.
For too long this was firmly Graham Greene territory — a displaced occidental, sweating the edgelands of empire, knowing, but not knowing enough to see what was right in front of him.
Change that pronoun, however, and a whole other set of expectations erect themselves, and part of van den Berg’s genius is how she threads a plotline around and through subversion.
Shortly after Clare arrives in Cuba, a man begins a lazy seduction attempt, trying — after dropping the name Hemingway — to suggest she’s in a dangerous place, and he will take care of everything.
Clare lies in response to all of his questions and slowly turns the tables. In short order he’s told her everything. The sad story, to inspire pity; the scary story meant to draw her gratefully to him.
“Good luck with your wife,” Clare says, sliding away.
This is just one of the dozens of small interactions that make up “The Third Hotel,” but they accumulate. Aborted chats, fake conversations — Clare lies a lot; she professes a desire to live in airports — and all of this creates an atmosphere of performance, and erasure.
Both of these issues are at the heart of Clare’s issue with her absent husband, a film studies expert, we learn early on, who was killed in a roadside accident near their upstate New York home. When he turns up in Havana, Clare wonders whether she has become so crazed with grief as to conjure him.
So she follows him, and wending between these stakeouts, screenings of horror films, and oddly tilted interactions with strangers, Clare becomes a walking chimney of disquiet. Unsure whether anything she sees is ever actually what she thinks it is.
Clare’s eerie perceptional wobbles are conjured beautifully by van den Berg, who sees like a painter and narrates like a crime reporter. To read “The Third Hotel’’ sometimes feels like following a character based on Joan Didion sinking deeper into a universe whose laws were written by Patricia Highsmith.
“Hello sounded between her ears,” Clare says, finally ready to confront her undead husband at a cafe, “she could feel the word rising up toward her mouth like a balloon into the sky, only to snag on the wet flesh of her throat.”
Every page contains a description as bizarrely right as this — a phrase or sentence worked to such jewel-like perfection that you have to pause to admire them, only to find — as in Duchamp’s famous five-way mirror, your own image looking back.
For this reason, “The Third Hotel” ought to be read slowly. Unlike so many books set in this part of the world, it refuses to project itself onto the place. Havana is there, evoked, but not possessed.
Simultaneously, Clare refuses — as a heroine — to be projected upon. Slipping from one false name to the next, one illusory perception to another, she remains mysterious and skeptical, aloof.
The other writer who comes to mind reading “The Third Hotel” is Gertrude Stein, sometimes reduced to Hemingway’s patron, but whose cubist rendering of consciousness in prose is a lost footbridge between visual modernism and literary modernism.
Here’s the primary reason why “The Third Hotel” needs to be read at a drip. In the novel’s second half, van den Berg allows what happened before to work its way into the book, one shard at a time.
What we learn — a father, dying of Alzheimer’s; a marriage, built like them all, on imperfect knowledge — doesn’t explain Clare. But it lends her existential errand in Havana the weight of a diving bell, with its capacity to dive and ability to float.
We are anchored by loss, set free by love, clichés tell us. What, this exquisitely written book asks, if it’s the opposite? In doing so van den Berg drives home an inversion far scarier than any zombie film: The truth is odd. That ringing bell in our minds isn’t the tinnitus of pop culture, the sign of something wrong. It’s the part that knows how to survive saying: You’re awake.
THE THIRD HOTEL
By Laura van den Berg
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224 pp., $26
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John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s. His most recent book is “Maps,’’ a collection of poems.