A mysterious couple invites a woman to visit their estate. Soon after meeting the pair, the woman, the central narrator in “Love Hotel,’’ finds herself slipping “into a halfway dreaming state in which I walked inside a tunnel,” which is a bit of the way most readers of this novel are likely to feel on check-in. Perhaps the couple recognized what a subtle and sensitive character they’d just met: “Clearly they could see in me what others had not seen in me/that in me all impressions feelings touches multiply.” The couple repeat their invitation. This time our narrator stays for several nights. She awakens in the manor house “with a feeling of foreboding.” Indeed, a sense of menace shadows all the narrators and presences inside this mesmerizing new novel by Jane Unrue.
That sense of threat — sexual, physical, psychological — is heightened by at least two parallel stories unfolding alongside, or perhaps it’s better to say inside, the primary narrative of the visitor. Another involves a wealthy woman who takes in a suicidal seamstress. The seamstress has a son raised inside the harsh circumstances of her life. Among the boy’s pastimes were imagining himself a spider, “hanging from a thread’s length down a wall.” Eventually the boy grows up: “If we should try imagining the raw intensity of the feelings of that child/a man now,” Unrue writes, leaving the sentence unfinished, fraught with foreboding. After all, someone is missing, bodies have been sighted — or dreamed, and off our narrator goes to the “Love Hotel’’ in search of an unnamed someone.
A third story, unscrolled in italicized bursts embedded in the other stories, seems to be about a farmer who watches his sons turning into wolves, and worse. The anxiety created by these grim unfoldings is further exacerbated by the book’s bold and deliberately intricate style, composed as it often is of fragments, interrupted sentences occasionally broken into lines, as in a poem.
In fact, Unrue, whose previous books include poetry, stories, a novella, and the haunting short novel “Life of a Star’’ — deftly undercuts our desire for the security and definitiveness of genre. To experience the luxurious power of “Love Hotel,’’ the reader must himself become a bit of a somnambulist, surrendering to its circular movements and recursively broken narratives without hoping for the usual consolations of fiction: recognizable characters with familiar psychological profiles and problems. Life isn’t quite as obvious as that, Unrue seems to say.
The poet and Dante translator Laurence Binyon once observed that “slowness is beauty.” With its fragments and elipses, “Love Hotel” is determined to force us off the tracks of the bullet train that is everyday reading in our post-haste society. Here the mystery isn’t confined to figuring out who done it. The novel instead asks a more profound and murkier question: What exactly do we think happened?
Every time I thought I’d solved the mystery, I found myself confounded by a change in the pattern. Foiling our desire for clarity and closure, Unrue nevertheless continually provokes our curiosity. It may be that the figure in this carpet will be no more traceable than that of Henry James’s Vereker, whose intensions were describable only between “lovers supremely united.”
Gorgeous passages abound: “I began to see collected pictures fused together into overlays that covered up the real life versions of the world.” Here the erotic mixes with the creepy, laced with a potent but never directly expressed emotional undercurrent: “I heard their robes fall off. They then began to offer themselves to me/ a mouth /a breast / . . . I felt an insect somewhere on me.” With its singular music and evocative images, the book recalls Susan Sontag’s plea for “an erotics of art” in place of mere interpretation. I’m not sure I can tell you what happens inside Jane Unrue’s “Love Hotel,’’ but I urge you to book your room early.
Askold Melnyczuk, who has published three novels, teaches at UMass Boston.