The Weeping Women Hotel, by Alexei Sayle

Revolution at the gastropub
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The Independent Culture

This is not your average north-London novel. True, it is set in a small community with a park, a gym and a charming gastropub. Yes, there are dinner parties. There is even a heroine called Harriet, who worries about her weight and drinks Czech beer with her crazy friends Lulu and Rose. To describe the bones of The Weeping Women Hotel, it sounds like everything you expect from an over-educated comedian turned smug in his middle age. Be warned: it is not.

Harriet is an obese invisible mender with a spoilt, pretty sister and a brother-in-law who is brilliantly rendered as possibly the most annoying man in the world. They work for charities like the Penrith Fairground Disaster Fund - "whose main purpose as far as she could tell was to avoid giving any money to anybody involved in any way in the great Penrith Fairground Disaster".

Harriet lives in a flat "ironically" furnished with purple Formica and inflatable chairs. Her friends are bound together by little more than "the coincidence that they'd all discovered couscous and New Zealand wine at more or less the same time."

For most of their waking hours, they find themselves consumed by impotent rage. Things begin to change for Harriet when she meets Patrick, a personal trainer who secretly teaches an obscure martial art. As he cajoles her into leaping out of trees, Harriet begins to shed pounds. Underneath the flab she finds an unexpected beauty and a thrilling sense of her own power. She even stands up to the snooty gastropub waiter. "Where would we be if everybody behaved like that?" asks her shocked friend. "France," she replies.

It is a very empowering message; but Sayle is not a self-help practitioner, and he must undermine his happy creation. This is a novel composed of surreal flights of fancy and spot-on comedy: about, among other pitiable targets, a Latin American novelist called Paulho Puoncho and the sinister "Yentob twins", capable of anything, including torture. By the time Harriet realises that it isn't the world that is making her angry "but her own weakness", fans of Sayle's brutal storytelling will expect a cataclysm. It never quite happens. The wanton, author-as-God destruction of Sayle's previous novels does not materialise. This book is more grown-up than that. Perhaps what he is satirising above all is the kind of novel that would allow itself such a smugly satisfying conclusion.

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