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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Sara Wilby

Sara Wilby is the narrative thread that ties the characters of Hotel World together. The first section of the novel is told from her first-person perspective. Sara was a nineteen-year-old champion swimmer who worked for two days as a chambermaid at the Global Hotel before her death. During the last weeks of her life, Sara had fallen for another young woman; this was the first time she had experienced such emotions.

When the novel begins, Sara has died and is slipping away from her corporeal existence. This process involves losing track of reference points such as language; as a ghost, Sara forgets simple words such as “eyes” and confuses near homonyms such as “life” and “leaf.”

The ghostly Sara engages in conversations with a version of herself that is housed in her physical body. This other Sara remembers specific details of her life and reluctantly provides the story of how her—or their—death occurred: While the first Sara knows she fell down the shaft of the dumbwaiter (though she forgets its name), the second Sara provides the reason she climbed into it.

As a ghost, Sara feels the need to be around people. She haunts her father and younger sister, but stops disturbing her mother, on whom she had a devastating effect. She also lurks near strangers in the cemetery and on the street.

Elspeth “Else” Freeman

Elspeth “Else” Freeman is a homeless woman, possibly in her twenties or thirties. She sits on the sidewalk outside the Global Hotel and asks for spare change. On Lise’s invitation to put her up for free, she spends one night in the hotel. Else is seriously ill: she has a terrible cough, which she struggles to control, and is often weak. She wears a long coat, the lining of which is filled with the change she collects. Others comment on her dirty, disheveled appearance, and even on her unpleasant smell.

Else is proud to have been photographed for a magazine feature on the contents of homeless people’s pockets. Educated and well-read, she spends time at the library and enjoys poetry. She seems to have a routine of looking into brightly lit houses through their windows. Her mental state fluctuates, as she often seems fragile and disoriented but also converses intelligently with Penny during a long walk they take together.

Lise O’Brien

Lise O’Brien was the receptionist on duty at the Global Hotel the night that Sara died. Although she was glad to be employed, Lise resented her employer’s power over her and engaged in small acts of resistance whenever possible. Lise often went outside to check on Else, and one cold, rainy night invited her to sleep in the hotel. Lise was pleased that she could hack the computer to let Else stay for free.

At the time of the novel’s present, Lise has become sick with an undiagnosable illness. She is constantly fatigued and listless; she no longer goes outside and cannot hold a job. She struggles to fill out a social services form.

Penny Warner

Penny Warner is a journalist for a paper called the World. She stays at the Global Hotel on assignment to review it. Penny is easily distracted and has an overactive imagination. Bored with writing the review, Penny seeks small diversions in the hotel. The fantastic scenarios she obsessively constructs connect with her admitted tendency to lie constantly.

In the corridor outside her room, Penny encounters Sara’s sister—whom she mistakes for a hotel employee—and then Else; together, Penny and Else help Clare unscrew the wooden panel that covers the dumbwaiter opening. Later, when she walks...

(This entire section contains 1099 words.)

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with Else through the city and nearby suburbs, Penny is condescending and pretends to be generous. Ultimately she is shown to be materialistic and thoroughly self-centered.

Clare Wilby

Clare Wilby is Sara’s sixteen-year-old sister. Months after Sara's death, Clare is living alone in the room they formerly shared. She struggles to process her own grief and that of her parents, with whom she lives. Clare’s thoughts and memories provide many details about Sara’s life. Sara sometimes haunts her, appearing as random body parts.

Clare endures bullying by other students at her school. She has taken to sitting silently on the sidewalk across from the hotel. People give her money, and Else observes her. Clare learns the truth about Sara's accident by putting on one of her sister’s uniforms and roaming around the hotel, where she meets Penny, Duncan, and Lise.


Duncan is a bellboy at the Global Hotel. He was with Sara in the top-floor room when she died. While they were joking around, Sara bet Duncan that she could fit into the dumbwaiter. Her doing so led to her death. Duncan continues to work at the hotel, but Lise notices that he has become somber and withdrawn. When Clare visits, Duncan explains to her the true circumstances of her sister’s death.

Deirdre O’Brien

Deirdre O’Brien is Lise’s mother. After Lise becomes ill, Deirdre comes every day at four in the afternoon to attend to her daughter. A once-popular poet, Deirdre had turned away from writing; however, she has recently begun work on an epic poem titled "Hotel World." For her poem, Deirdre draws on her impressions and her daughter’s memories of the Global Hotel. Prompting Lise to remember the hotel is also Deirdre’s way of encouraging her daughter to keep using her mind.

The Girl in the Watch Shop

The girl in the watch shop is the person for whom Sara “falls.” When Sara’s watch stopped, she took it to a repair shop and consulted with a young woman who works there. After leaving her watch, which had to be sent away for repairs, Sara realized that she had developed feelings for this girl. The girl who works at the watch shop noticed Sara standing outside for days but didn't speak to her, feeling that the timing was wrong. She has since taken to wearing Sara's watch daily, and imagines every morning what their interaction will be when Sara returns to pick it up.

Mr. Whitelaw

Mr. Whitelaw was an adult friend of Else's family who sexually abused Else when she was a teenager.


Ade was Else’s companion and was also poor and homeless. He appears in Else's memory of a time when they traveled together. She recalls the two of them helping a drunk man get home, admiring the man's boots, and then sleeping together on the floor of the man’s room.