Laura van den Berg's The Third Hotel focuses on the theme of how powerfully grief, separation, and death can alter someone's perception and presence in reality. Clare, the novel's protagonist, arrives in Havana, Cuba to attend the Festival of New Latin American Cinema where the first horror film directed by a Cuban citizen will premiere. Richard, Clare's late husband, was a scholar of horror film, and she hopes that her journey to see the film premiere only five weeks after her husband's death will help in her grief process.
During the opening ceremony of the film festival, Yuniel Mata, the breakout film's director, explains why he believes horror films have the ability to impact people's lives. Mata explains that horror "takes away the viewer's compass, their tools for navigating the world, and [replaces] it with a compass that tells a different kind of truth." The conceit of the novel is revealed in these words from Mata, which serves as a compass for the reader who is trying to navigate Clare's loss through the world of ghosts—presumably both real and imagined.
Utilizing surrealist storytelling, van den Berg's narrative does not feel entirely linear, which amplifies the theme of grief's power to alter someone's perception and presence in reality. Clare's interactions with a mysterious ghost, her sifting through her husband's old journal articles, and her attempts to be present in her life that must somehow go on all demonstrate the circuitous, disorienting, and visceral the loss of a loved one can be. As Clare struggles with the isolation she feels, she tries to come to terms with all that she feels separated from: the partner she misses, the life she once had and will never have again, and the ghost of Richard that she sees walking the streets of Havana.
When Clare sees this vision of Richard in the streets of Havana, a spirit of sorts caught in between the worlds of the dead and the living (though seemingly comfortable and at home in both worlds), she pursues him. Clare desires answers, information, and connection as a means to circumnavigate her grief and reorient her understanding of the world when she is ready to return to her life back home. Clare does not move forward in the world without having experienced a deep, ontological change as a result of her grief, separation, and death.
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