Hotel Arcadia by Sunny Singh - book review: This addictive, penetrative debut shoots from the hip

Singh's crafted style investigates the grammar and ethics of the photojournalist

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The Independent Culture

"There is an aggression," Susan Sontag wrote in her celebrated essay, On Photography, "implicit in every use of the camera". She equated cameras with guns and cars as fantasy instruments whose use is at once predatory and addictive.

In her powerful and absorbing debut novel, set in an international hotel under terrorist attack, Sunny Singh has put to the test Sontag's scalding critique of the modern image-world. Sam, a celebrated war photographer, is known for her portraits of the dead, shot in many theatres of war. Wherever violent death stalks innocent prey, there is Sam "harvesting the death masks".

She specialises in beautiful faces and bodies, a mortuary aesthetic. "We are not so different, camera girl," sneered a military guy nicknamed "The Butcher" in an army base in Serbia or Congo, Afghanistan or Somalia (she forgets which). "Except that you wait till they are dead". Sam vows, after that encounter, to "find a way to be different". In the Hotel Arcadia, she reluctantly finds that way, intervening at the expense of her own safety.

While Sam exploits the opportunity conferred by the terrorist attack to undertake sorties into the hotel's bowels in search of photogenic corpses, she is herself under surveillance by Abhi, the hotel manager, observing both the terrorist atrocities and Sam's progress through CCTV. The watcher is watched. The intimate bond that grows between the two as the drama unfolds is beautifully managed. Both are "army brats", wayward children of military families. Abhi is a sensitive man defending the secret of his homosexuality; Sam, the loner, is running from the twisted constraints of a love affair and a traumatised conscience. The narrative slips between the two, revealing them as kin to one another, though they may never meet.

Singh's crafted style investigates the grammar and ethics of the photojournalist: "Sam hasn't shot survivors in years... she didn't shoot the child... her eye [is] glued to the viewfinder, her finger moving like an automaton". Without her camera Sam's the equivalent of a weaponless soldier. Meanwhile, Abhi, exercising the eye of power through the CCTV system, "calls the shots", guiding the photographer as best he can along the corridors of the hotel. Between them, the twin narrators unite in their effort to attain some redeeming integrity.

Singh's novel is not only a page-turning thriller. It is far more than that. We never meet the terrorists: they are nearly always elsewhere. Singh's characters inhabit an arena of trauma, where little happens but the play of light and shadow on a screen and in the soul.