The novel begins with Mrs Ivy Eckdorf, a professional photographer, originally from England and who now lives in Munich, brazenly and intrusively engage a man in conversation whilst on a flight to Dublin. She explains, despite the fact that the man doesn’t care, about her life:
‘The one who was my husband last,’ said Mrs Eckdorf, ‘gave me a taste for cognac. Hans-Otto Eckdorf.’
‘Indeed.’ She paused, and then she said: ‘That has been my life. A mother, a father who walked away. And then Miss Tample. And then two German businessmen. The only light in my life is my camera.’
‘We are the victims of other people.’
‘It’s often so—’
It’s difficult to know where to stop the quotation as the flow of words from Mrs Eckdorf is constant. She intends to visit O’Neill’s Hotel in Thadeus Street, Dublin after hearing about it from a bartender on a ship. O’Neill’s is owned by a deaf ninety-one year-old called Mrs Sinnott who has offered lodging and employment to a number of orphans over the years. The hotel, once grand, has now fallen into disrepair and is suspected of being little more than a brothel. Mrs Eckdorf believes that something terrible happened in the past and that she can help uncover the source of their problems.
There are too many characters, brilliant characters, to cover them all but it is useful to get to know some of them. Mrs Sinnott’s fifty-eight year-old son, Eugene, basically lives off the hotel but does little to help in the running of it, instead he spends his time drinking and gambling. He spends his time analysing his dreams for racing tips. O’Shea is the hotel porter and is mainly responsible for the actual running of the hotel; he dreams of the days when the hotel was elegant and hopes that the current decay can be reversed. When Mrs Eckdorf arrives he mistakenly believes that this elegantly dressed woman intends to purchase the hotel in order to renovate it. He sees himself as Mrs Sinnott’s protector, from all the others, who are trying to take advantage of her. The worst of these people, in O’Shea’s eyes, is Morrissey; he’s a shady character who doesn’t actually live in the hotel but has somehow got a key and sneaks in at night to sleep in the hallway, and occasionally pass water in the backyard. Worse, he uses the hotel to pimp out Agnes Quinn to interested men. I always love a vivid character description, so here’s a description of Morrissey.
Morrissey was singularly small, a man in his mid-thirties who had once been compared to a ferret. He had a thin trap of a mouth and greased black hair that he perpetually attended, directing it back from his forehead with a clogged comb. He was dressed now, as invariably he was, in flannel trousers and the jacket of a blue striped suit over a blue pullover, and a shirt that was buttoned to the neck but did not have a tie in its collar.
Other characters include Eugene’s estranged wife, Philomena, who now lives elsewhere with their son, Timothy John. Timothy John is in love with a girl called Daisy Tulip and he works in an insurance agency under Mr Desmond Gregan, the husband of Enid Gregan, née Sinnott, Eugene’s sister. Desmond Gregan dreams of growing and selling tomatoes for a living instead of working in an insurance agency. If that’s complicated enough we have a travelling cardboard salesman called Mr Smedley who plays a significant part later on, Mrs Dargan a large prostitute who virtually lives at the Excelsior pub along with Eugene and others.
Ivy Eckdorf knowingly arrives at the hotel on the eve of Mrs Sinnott’s ninety-second birthday and the chaos ensues. If her actions at the beginning of the novel seemed erratic and confrontational then what follows is even more so. She knows how to win over O’Shea by telling him what he wants to hear but Eugene, for all his faults, has a keener eye and suspects something. Mrs Eckdorf wheedles her way into Mrs Sinnott’s room and communicates with her, as all the others do, by writing in one of her notebooks. Trevor allows us periodically into the thoughts of all the characters. Mrs Eckdorf believes it is her mission to uncover and photograph Mrs Sinnott’s birthday party and uncover the truth of past events in O’Neill’s hotel. In fact, we get to know more and more about Mrs Eckdorf’s life and as the novel continues we start to see that her erratic and obviously manipulative behaviour starts to show cracks in her mental wellbeing. She manages to unburden herself to Father Hennessey but he is unable to help her as she jumps from confession to messianic visions to contrition. It’s a glorious book with a host of crazy characters and with a ‘car-crash’ of an ending.
‘Extraordinary things have happened to me in this city,’ said Mrs Eckdorf in the bar of her hotel at half-past one on the morning of August 11th. ‘You would scarce believe,’ she said.
This was read as part of Reading Ireland Month 2018.