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Finbar's Hotel

Dermot Bolger, Roddy Doyle, Anne Enright, Hugo Hamilton Jennifer Johnston, Joseph O'Connor, Colm Toibin.
Picador, 1997. 273pp
ISBN: 0 330 36878 8

review by Ann Skea

"Each chapter of this book has
been written by a different author...
We leave it to discerning readers to identify them."

A book written by a committee sounds like a recipe for disaster. And if the committee is made up of an individualistic bunch of Irish authors, what then? Well, I have to tell you that this bunch has not created a monster, but a fantastic and wonderful beast.

Finbar's Hotel is past its prime and is soon to be demolished. Once, its position and its reputation for discretion ensured its popularity. Not least, with "rural curates on annual drinking batters to Dublin". Now, the people booked into rooms 101 to 107 on this ordinary Thursday night are just ordinary people.

Or are they? In room 103 there is a young man with a ghetto-blaster, and a suitcase that contains a live cat and an axe. Benny, in room 101, has never stayed in an hotel before and his wife doesn't know he's here. Nor does Maureen Connolly's husband know she is in a Dublin hotel pretending to be a nun. Then there is the nameless regular in room 107 who has a fake Rembrandt on the wall and a real one hidden in the hills.

Every room has its secrets and during the course of the evening we learn a good deal about them. But we never learn who wrote each story. Nor does it matter (except to satisfy our curiosity), because the tone of the writing is remarkably consistent and, like the photograph on the book's cover, the authors and their fictional characters are all comfortably tucked up together in Finbar's Hotel for just this one night.

As in any hotel, characters occasionally brush shoulders with each other and with other hotel guests, visitors and staff. We are part of their lives briefly, and then they are gone. If you are as full of 'satiable curiosity as the elephant's child, this is a tantalising book. It is as fascinating and satisfying as any shared secrets can be, and it leaves you wanting more. You want to know what happens to these people tomorrow. And there are other stories here which never get told. What, for example, are the couple arguing about in the hotel restaurant, and why does the woman later give Benny a bloody nose?

This is a book of puzzles. You may figure out which of the seven bags (drawn by seven different artists for the book's cover) belongs in which room, and which author is which in the group photograph. You may even be clever enough to identify the author of each chapter. But you will have to go to Dublin, and "a terrace on Victoria Quay, opposite what was then called Knightsbridge Railway Station", to know whether Finbar's Hotel really exists. Be quick. I'm told they're about to pull it down.

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