Jonathan Bennett, 227 pgs, ECW Press, ecwpress.com, $22.95
It takes guts to weave an original story with a myth that has such a dynamic influence on the western literary canon, and Jonathan Bennett certainly does not shy away from the task as he manipulates the Paris and Helen tale for this compact novel. The Colonial Hotel is a book that draws together foreign and familiar worlds, presenting the benign and repulsive of each in the same sympathetic light.
In The Colonial Hotel, Paris and Helen are cast as foreign aid workers separated by civil war in an unnamed developing country. The narrative changes chapter to chapter to alternately feature the voices of Paris, Helen and Oenone, who all address themselves to an unborn daughter. At moments this constant addressing seems overdone, and at others it seems to serve primarily to drop meaning lazily on the reader under the guise of parental guidance. For instance, passages like: “Daughter, I have no one to blame but myself. Despite the hopes and fears of the naïve many, you can learn to love this lawless, Godless world. I have…” come occasionally loping out of the narrative to make blatant what would have been more elegantly exposited without them.
But the address also works to colour each detail with a sense of purpose. The Colonial Hotel is not a record, but a correspondence between the characters and their children, as well as between stories often touted as seminal of western culture but seldom understood with immediacy. Beyond the Paris and Helen myth, these are also stories of the suffering that goes on in colonial countries in order to make western living possible. The child addressed is the reader of the text, borne of a correspondence between one of western culture’s most prized and cloistered traditions and its most shameful one, and at the end of the book we garner an understanding of these as equally important in her formation.
Overall, The Colonial Hotel is a rewarding read that generates a delicate truth in the correspondence between two fictions. (Maureen Brouwer