Last Updated on December 18, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1371
The first section, “Past,” is narrated by Sara Wilby, who died at age nineteen. About six months have passed since she fell to her death in a dumbwaiter in the Global Hotel, where she had just started working as a chambermaid. Now that she is dead, Sara's ghost wishes she could still feel everyday physical sensations. Over time, she is forgetting words, senses, and abstract concepts such as colors. She recalls the fall that killed her, the stories in the papers, and attending her own funeral. For weeks, Sara practices "performing" herself to her family members, basing her appearances on photographs of herself. "The father" pretends she isn't there and "the sister" craves her presence; after a couple of visits Sara decides it is kinder not to come to "the mother."
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Bored with haunting people, the ghost Sara reenters her buried body. She asks this other version of her self to tell her about "the fall." Reluctantly, this other Sara tells the ghost Sara that she had fallen in love with another young woman, a clerk in a watch shop. Having never experienced such feelings before, she worried about her family’s and friends’ opinions. She went by the shop every day for three weeks and looked in at the girl without speaking to her. Her last day of watching was her first night working at the Global Hotel. On her second night working, she bet her coworker that she could fit into the dumbwaiter, which fell and killed her.
Sara's body rejects further inquiries and so the ghostly Sara haunts the hotel. Eventually, she detaches from the world entirely.
“Present Historic” is told in third person. It centers on Else, a homeless woman who begs on the sidewalk outside the Global Hotel. Else has a vivid imagination and a terrible, body-wracking cough. With her impaired speech, she asks people to “spr sm chn”; they often toss coins at her. She watches a silent teenage girl who often sits across the street, where people leave money—sometimes bills—in front of her. The girl generally walks away and leaves the money, which Else then picks up.
The expression on the teenage girl's face looks to Else like love. Else recalls people’s insults and sexual propositions, which she had sometimes accepted. A young woman in a hotel uniform comes up to Else; Else expects to be chased away, but instead the woman offers her a free room for the night. Else remembers being taken to a hotel room years before, where two men prayed over her. Then she remembers her sexual initiation at the age of fourteen at the hands of a middle-aged family friend, Mr. Whitelaw. She remembers her previous companion, Ade, on an occasion when they helped an old drunk man get home and then slept on his floor.
The teenage girl has gone and Else retrieves the pile of money she left behind. It starts to rain, and Else goes finds herself going inside the hotel and taking the room. The receptionist, Lise, is delighted. In her room and after a coughing fit, Else takes a long, luxurious hot bath, and then gets out and leaves the water running. As she sits on the bed and counts her coins, she remembers appearing in a photographer’s feature about things in homeless people’s pockets.
“Future Conditional” also has a third-person narrator. The Global Hotel's receptionist, Lise, is at home trying to fill out a form that contains questions “About You.” Six months after Sara’s death, Lise has developed a debilitating illness that resists medical diagnosis. She cannot work and is largely bedridden. The form is necessary for Lise to receive disability benefits, but filling it out is too exhausting for her. With her impaired cognitive functions, Lise struggles to remember simple words and temporal concepts. I am a good person, Lise thinks, who tries to help others.
Lise thinks ahead to four in the afternoon when her mother, Deirdre, will make her daily visit. Once a popular poet, Deirdre has begun an epic poem about her daughter, to be titled “Hotel World.” As she is trying to remember details to tell Deirdre about the Global Hotel, Lise relives one of her last days working there. Her recollections describe the management’s rigid, corporate attitude and Lise's efforts to subvert their control. She also reflects on changes in the bellboy Duncan's personality since he witnessed Sara's death. Lise recalls going outside to offer the room to Else. She thought perhaps she had seen the girl across the street at Sara’s funeral. After Lise falls asleep, her mother arrives and sits beside her bed.
In “Perfect,” a third-person narrator tells of Penny Warner, a writer staying in the Global Hotel. Bored, Penny tries unsuccessfully to watch porn, and then types a little on her laptop. She pushes the laptop off of the bed; thinking it might be broken, she fantasizes about the thrilling lie she could tell to explain the damage.
Penny hears a noise in the corridor outside her room: a uniformed teenage girl is trying to unscrew a panel from the wall. Penny goes to a lower floor in search of a screwdriver. Instead, she finds an oddly dressed woman whom she takes for an eccentric rock star. Penny takes the odd woman—Else—back upstairs. Else takes out her change and Penny uses a coin to unscrew the panel. It opens onto a dark, empty shaft. The girl drops a clock down the shaft, then her shoe. Else gives her half the change she is carrying and leaves. The girl cries.
Upset by the tears, Penny leaves the hotel and re-encounters Else, who is going to look at houses. Penny asks if Else is contemplating buying a house, and Else says she is. In the suburban streets, Else stops often to watch people inside their homes. Outside the library, trying to engage Else in conversation, Penny admits that she usually lies about her own life when asked. She finally realizes that Else is homeless and she is lost. Penny gives Else a check for a large (unstated) sum and then borrows some change from her to call a taxi. Back in her hotel room, Penny learns the TV code for the porn, orders room service, and calls her bank and cancels the check. She then finishes her writing assignment—a glowing review of the Global Hotel.
Future in the Past
“Future in the Past” is narrated by Clare, Sara’s sixteen-year-old sister, whose thoughts are strung together with ampersands and lack terminal punctuation. She contemplates her life since Sara’s death. Sara, a fast swimmer, might have earned a substitute spot on the national team. Her father threw out all of Sara's swimming awards and was enraged when Clare retrieved them, throwing them out again. Clare imagines the awards in the dump becoming future archaeological specimens. Parts of Sara sometimes appear to Clare in the bedroom they used to share; Clare conflates breasts and eyes.
Other adjustments include ignoring her classmates’ bullying and rejecting others’ opinion that Sara took her own life. Clare was the girl who had sat outside the hotel, hoping for insights. Clare found Sara’s spare uniform among her own clothes, overlooked by her parents, and wore it to the hotel. After opening the dumbwaiter shaft and bursting into tears, she met Lise and Duncan, from whom she learned the truth about Sara’s accident.
The last section, “Present,” returns to third-person narration. It describes the city in the winter and the doings of ghosts from different eras—as far back as the seventeenth century, and including Diana, Princess of Wales. It also describes moments in the lives of characters that have been mentioned in the novel's other sections.
The girl in the watch shop puts on Sara’s watch. She took out of its file after Sara didn't pick it up. She remembers Sara coming by for weeks and standing outside the shop. Although intrigued, she was not ready to interact with her. The girl hasn't yet tried to contact Sara about the watch, and looks forward to meeting Sara when she comes to retrieve it.