What more can we ask of literature than to transport us into a world other than our own and to give us insight into a different perspective?
Before I delve into what this book is about and how much I enjoyed it, I need to give some context.
I’ve been reading more than one book at a time for as long as I can remember. Just as I would reach the end of one book, I’d start another one. But lately I find that it makes my reading a little disjointed.
It’s books like this one, so intentionally a singular thought (or many that blend seamlessly into one another) – just picking up where the last left off – and so you just can’t put it down.
The Colonial Hotel is a book that I came across serendipitously. I hadn’t heard of it prior to this week but I set my mind to reading it and it didn’t take me long to finish it (read: less than a day). It’s a story of discomfort and bleak outcomes more than good and it’s set in an ambiguous region of the world that descends into an inescapable civil war.
While I know very little of the ancient story of Paris, Helen, and Oenone (of whom I knew nothing before reading this novel), I can appreciate a detail such as Priam being the name of Paris’ father in the novel, just like the Greek myth.
The plot doesn’t make your heart race constantly but the characters’ thoughts and feelings grab a hold of your emotions in such a subtle manner that when you try and close the book, every part of you resists the act of putting the book down and diverting your attention elsewhere. They keep your mind occupied until you come back to their story again. They’re compelling in the way that you feel close to them and care deeply about them.
At first I was just curious about this lovestruck physician, Paris, and the way he was under the spell of a charming nurse named Helena. But, oh, is it much more than that.
Do yourself the favour of reading this book somewhere quiet, it brings out the beauty in the honesty and desperation of the characters’ voices. They won’t demand your attention in loud exclamations but you’ll respect them enough to pay close attention and set everything else aside, just to hear what they have to say.
One of the most heartbreaking moments in the novel takes place at exactly the halfway mark – at which point you’re so invested there’s no looking away or becoming detached – when Paris, in an attempt to describe the trauma (tw: sexual assault, rape) Helena experiences in his dream of her younger self, says:
“Men such as me are never there at the right time. This story is the oldest story in the world, the one that launches a thousand dark dreams.”
The entire page prior to those lines is one vivid allusion to the rape that takes place, but nothing captures how profoundly cruel and horrible it is than those two lines; the latter more than anything.
The part of the story that was the most difficult for me to grapple with was the final few chapters. I wondered why Paris didn’t leave Oenone in search of Helena and his daughter when he was freed and restored to health. Why he didn’t try and salvage the life he had left to live through the joy of finally meeting his first child and reuniting with the woman he loved as constantly as he breathed?
“Are she [Oenone] and Helen so different? For all I know Helen is right back in the town, not a day away from here, saving lives. But no, I believe she is looking after you, my daughter. She has made the choice of motherhood; it is the only choice. I became a memory, a turning point in time. Does she think of me now? Maybe. Maybe not. In the end, if we are each able to find home in some way, a connection to place and country and another person who would die for you and for whom you would die, then that is more than can be hoped for from life.”
It became clear to me, then, that Paris had not stopped loving Helen; he had simply made peace with the fact that between him and herself, she chose herself. She also chose their daughter, but she could’ve done so and still sought out Paris so the three of them could live as a family. But she didn’t.
Earlier on, he bears the burden of choosing between Helen and his profession as a physician. Loving her meant being out of touch with Western medicine and potentially giving up the future of practicing medicine back in his country. He chose her, but when it came time for her to make a similar decision Helen did not choose Paris.
“And, Helen, I forgive you.”
The last words Paris narrates to his child with Helen. So much subtext packed into such a small phrase. This act of forgiveness means more than his mercy, it means he came to realize her original intentions at some point. That he was aware of his largely unreciprocated emotions, of his love. I’m not sure when he knew.
A large part of why I enjoyed reading this novel so much was because of such moments – way too many for me to point out – where I felt an internal shift of emotions so violent I gasped, audibly, but the lyrical prose and the gentle, loving words of Paris, Helen, and Oenone to their children comforted my sorrow to the very end.
If you’ve read this far and managed to come out not entirely confused after my interpretation of this novel – please share your thoughts! I’m curious to know if I’m way off. But then again, reading is usually subjective, right?