Books: Secrets and lives of a hotel

The International by Glenn Patterson Anchor pounds 9.99

Glenn Patterson set himself high standards with his 1988 debut, Burning Your Own. The novel was set on a Belfast housing estate in 1969 and, with humour and compassion, Patterson managed to take in the whole of an unstable society through the eyes and experiences of a 10-year- old narrator. Without stating the obvious, political or historical, Patterson explored how ordinary individuals were affected, or infected, by the troubled events.

The International, his fourth novel, is less turbulent but no less accomplished, and Patterson's perspective remains wry and humane. Set in Belfast's International Hotel in January 1967, its intentions are clear from the first line of Danny the barman's narration: "If I had known history was to be written that Sunday in The International Hotel I might have made an effort to get out of bed before tea time." That Sunday was the day the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association held its inaugural meeting in the hotel, setting in motion the peaceful protests which then sparked the sectarian violence. But Danny phoned in sick.

What we get is an account of his previous day's work, the unwitting day before history was written: 14 hours in which he fell in love twice, sparred with his colleagues and served regulars and shoppers, loners and losers, dodgy dealers and wedding guests. Patterson is a master of casual, comic description and The International delivers its visual detail with the economy of a screenplay. Danny moves around the hotel's interior like a roving camera. Snippets of conversations drift into his internal monologue; characters loom briefly into view, their gestures and actions noted with precision; his customers are scanned from his vantage point behind the bar. The lightness of Patterson's writing conceals a vice-like grip on the movement and plotting. But such is the bombardment of snapshot images and mixed-up thoughts - not to mention the errands, mundane and bizarre, and endless pint-pouring - that to reach the end of the novel, and of Danny's shift, is something of a relief.

Intertwined with this real-time narrative, there are biographies of characters that would not go amiss in a short-story collection: Stanley, the young and lonely puppet-show entertainer, who dreams of a season at Butlins; Ingrid, the young and mysterious photographer who gatecrashes her ex-lover's wedding; and Clive, Danny's shady cousin, who's at the centre of an elaborate business scam. Patterson makes every one of their secrets and lives count as they brush past each other in the International's bars and corridors, without letting the intricacies of their connections obstruct the fluid narrative. The sum of The International's parts is an almost disrespectful elegy, a living, breathing document of the lives of ordinary losers and of making-doers before irrevocable change.

But momentous events don't come out of nowhere. With a matter-of-factness that's both unobtrusive and unsettling, Patterson drip-feeds the reader the context: Ian Paisley was "a joke that became less funny each time you heard it"; "it was news to most people that there was enough of an IRA to splinter"; the first shots in the UVF's war against the IRA were aimed at four of the International's Catholic barmen the previous year. One of them, Peter Ward, died. This was a real event, and a real person; Patterson makes Ward's replacement Danny, working alongside staff unable to account for Ward's tragic absence. By the end, Patterson has quietly achieved a feat that is touching and honourable. Fictional it may be, but The International is a slice of the life that Ward would have known. With a debt of sadness, Patterson has written Peter Ward back into history - the time before other people's history really started.

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