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Hotel Arcadia

Sunny Singh

Oneworld (2024)

Review by Kate Morrison


In this intensely gripping novel, Sam is a contemporary war photographer whose career is built on her powerful, aesthetically stunning images of the dead. She has checked into the Hotel Arcadia – which is not assigned a geographical location, though we know it’s in Sam’s homeland and clues indicate this is the Indian subcontinent – to recover from her latest trip. When gunmen attack the hotel, she deals with the terror in the same way she always does. She picks up her cameras and goes out to document the carnage.

Meanwhile Abhi, the hotel manager, is trapped in his sealed office. A vital point of contact for both Sam and the police responding to the crisis, he is desperately afraid that his lover, Dieter, has been caught up in the attack. Initially frustrated by Sam’s refusal to stay safely in her room, he becomes invested in her project and is able to follow and guide her progress via the hotel’s network of security cameras.

Estranged from his military father and unable to safely come out as gay, Abhi has never wanted to go to war. Now, war has come to him. He and Sam, both rebelling against family expectations, find solace in their telephone conversations and developing friendship.

Singh handles the shifting narrative viewpoints adeptly, switching between Sam and Abhi’s respective backstories and the immediate dangers in the hotel. Sam and Abhi’s internal development is just as gripping as the external events, with their reactions to the hotel attack illuminating both their past selves and their potential for change:

‘Hadn’t he always known this overwhelming fear of discovery, the terror of not finding a way out, the desolation of fighting all his battles alone? … Now, in a strange, brutal way, the net had closed once again around him. Once again he was trapped.’ 

Sam is an intriguing character, still too rare in fiction – a woman of colour allowed full humanity; she is complex and flawed. Addicted to the adrenaline and chaos of conflict, is she a witness or voyeur? Do her images change anything? Singh questions the morality and ethics of art through Sam’s work:

‘Sam has a rule: she makes no contact with her subjects. She doesn’t try to get them help or try to stop them bleeding … With her viewfinder before her eye, she sees through a screen and makes sure that she isn’t touched by what unfolds on it.’  

At the Arcadia, Sam finally goes beyond acting as witness when she rescues a small boy from the bedroom where he is hiding with his parents’ bodies. When she discovers him, she initially returns to her bedroom alone rather than taking him with her.  It’s Abhi who nudges her to go back for the child, with the half-whispered words: ‘What if you are the only one who can help someone?’ Their friendship unlocks the empathy that Sam still possesses, despite the cynicism she’s developed as a survival mechanism. 

Singh has revealed that the novel is in part an ‘answer’ to Dante’s Inferno, with Sam and Abhi occupying different positions in the nine circles of Hell. It’s an intriguing premise that shows the literary heft behind a novel with the pace and drive of an action thriller. Hotel Arcadia is a seriously impressive accomplishment and a book that deserves a wide readership.