Book Review

Hotel Arcadia by Sunny Singh

Sam is a war photographer famous for her hauntingly beautiful pictures of the dead. After a particularly gruelling assignment, she checks into an expensive hotel. Unfortunately she has chosen the exact moment terrorists attack the hotel. Abhi, the hotel manager, begs her to stay quiet and stay put.

Abhi has never wanted to be a hero; a disappointment to his army father and brother. He thought he’d come to a safe haven at the hotel, a place where he could be himself. Now stuck inside the sealed-off manager’s office in the middle of a terrorist attack, he is desperately trying to keep those still alive safe. His lover Dieter is amongst the hostages in the bar and the photographer Sam, refusing to stay in her room, is roaming through the hotel taking pictures, potentially coming face to face with the terrorists at any moment.

A small child, Billy, is found alive under the bodies of his dead parents and Abhi has to persuade the non-maternal Sam to bring him back to her room. He’s hurt and Sam has no clue how to look after a child. As the tension mounts and more people are killed, the bond between Sam and Abhi, between Sam and Billy, grows. If any of them get out alive, none of them will ever be the same…

Hotel Arcadia begins with war photographer Sam checking into the hotel following an assignment, something that she always does when she’s finished a project as a way to unwind and to put what she’s seen behind her, or as much as that’s possible given her profession.  Things quickly take a turn for the worse as the hotel is attacked by terrorists with many guests and hotel staff killed outright while others are forced to hide as best they can.  It’s the stuff of nightmares, and the way that that chapters count down the hours hints at how much these characters will have to endure.

The novel is told from the perspectives of Sam and Abhi, the hotel manager.  Caught in the lobby when the attack begins, Abhi manages to get to the relative safety of his office with access to the security footage from around the hotel.  While the blurb states that Abhi never wanted to be a hero, I had a strong sense of a captain going down with his ship – he comes across as an honourable man who wants to help as many as he can even though he feels that he’s not cut out for that role.  Sam is initially something of a trial for Abhi – he wants the hotel’s guests to stay in their rooms and out of the sight, but Sam has never been one to shy away from danger and cautiously sets out to document events.  The reader – and Abhi – see this as foolish initially, but I came to understand it as Sam’s way of dealing with the situation.  I think that we all seek out the familiar in times of stress, and this – strangely enough – seems to be Sam’s coping mechanism. 

Sam is refreshing as a protagonist.  Small and slight, she performs a difficult, dangerous, and emotionally draining role – something that she has hardened herself to out of necessity. As we learn more about her, we understand that there is a complicated on / off relationship, but she isn’t defined by this or by the children that she doesn’t have. Even when she reluctantly takes in a child whose parents have been killed by the terrorists, she isn’t suddenly infused with maternal instinct.  She looks after him, but it’s a chore and a trial, and I’m not sure you’ll find her approach in any guide to caring for children.  I think that there is a view still held by some that all women are meant to be mothers and that it’s something that comes naturally to us, and it’s wonderful to see an alternative perspective presented here.

While ostensibly very different, I enjoyed discovering the parallels between Sam and Abhi which gives them common ground – beyond being caught up in a dreadful situation – and that allows them to form a tentative friendship.  Their lives are revealed through flashbacks which give a greater sense of who they are.  Both come from military families, and both have proven to be a disappointment to their fathers.  For Sam, this starts with rejecting the feminine trappings that would define her as the lady her father expects her to be upon reaching a certain age.  Becoming a war photographer and placing herself in danger as she does isn’t intended to be her sticking two fingers up at society’s expectations, and yet it’s so far removed from what her father wants that I couldn’t help but consider it in that light. 

Abhi has the opposite problem – he was expected to join the army his father dedicated his life to and as his older brother has done.  There was no discussion about this, it was simply expected that Abhi would follow suit, so much so that he was forced to pursue his own ambition to go to university in secret – something which eventually sees him cut off by his father, although there are hints that this isn’t entirely without regret.  I think that both Sam and Abhi’s characters explore traditional gender roles, turning these on their head as both go against the expectations placed upon them by their families. It’s a particular kind of bravery to pursue your own wants and needs when it involves going against those around you and both characters are easy to sympathise with as a result.

The story itself is compelling and emotionally wrought.  We see Abhi’s initial terror as he starts to understand what is happening and before he achieves the relative safety of his office from which he tries to help those in the hotel.  And watching Sam go out on her sorties left me with heart in mouth at the possibility that she will – despite her caution – cross paths with the terrorists.  There’s a real sense of tension as the reader fears the worst.  We see these excursions from Sam’s perspective, but also through Abhi’s eyes as he monitors her progress through the security cameras in the hotel.  It’s brilliantly done, and I quickly became invested in their lives. 

Hotel Arcadia is a wonderful novel that struck me for being utterly unique – I don’t believe I’ve read anything quite like it even though a hostage situation is nothing new.  Rather than focussing on the terrorists, Singh chooses to focus more on the perspectives of those caught up in the situation through no fault of their own, exploring the human need for connection however independent we think we might be. 


    1. Thank you, Nicola! I only came across it recently, but I’m so glad I did. A short but powerful novel.

  1. love this review. have been following the author on twitter since last year and have learnt so so much. can’t read this book right now as I’m not old enough to read it.. so practicing the hardest self-control I can 🙂

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