Review: Afternoon Tea with Olivia Laing
One of the many things we forget as adults is how truly wonderful it is to have a good story read out loud. We loved it as children and we love it still, but our busy lives rarely grant us the occasion for this inexplicable pleasure. Yet on a grey Thursday afternoon at Manchester’s Midland Hotel such a moment was shared between author Olivia Laing and her audience.
In the warm embrace of the green wood-panelled walls of the Wyvern, Laing read her short story The Other Hotel, one of a new series of commissioned writing that the Manchester Literature Festival (MLF) commits to every year. Inspired by her writer’s residency at the Midland, the story drifted in and out of conversation between the narrator and the character of Mabel, a ghost connected to the hotel.
The story is based upon love letters found by Laing upon her visit to the Midland, many of which have been framed somewhat carelessly around the hotel as items of memorabilia rather than someone’s private and very personal possessions. Laing admitted that, at first, she struggled to come to terms with the public display of these letters, feeling that a crime had been committed against the author, Mabel. Laing hopes that The Other Hotel will do Mabel justice.
Though Laing claims to rarely write non-fiction (her two books, To The River and The Trip to Echo Spring, are literary biographies), she succeeds in crafting a delightful story in The Other Hotel, weaving beautiful imagery betwixt intelligent observations and carefully selected emotive quotes from the original letters, such as “it will always be 14 February at the Midland Hotel”. The conversation between the two characters is enjoyably believable; as the pair argue through ideas the listener discerns a stream of consciousness from the author herself as she comes to understand her own thoughts. I found the experience gripping, and looking around at the other tables I noticed that the other guests were equally enchanted, half smiles across their lips and eyes all dreamy, every one eager to drink in her story.
The location of this particular reading played a big part in its effect. As Laing spoke of building works at Central Library, the audience could hear the faint construction noises of the diggers she had mentioned in the street outside. During the story we also learned some lesser known facts about the hotel, notably of Cooper’s orchard and a secret door in the back of a wardrobe to conceal affairs.
After the reading, writer Kate Feld led a discussion about Laing’s influences, experiences and challenges, which uncovered some interesting insights about the author’s perspective on such matters. Laing revealed that she is more concerned about presenting the contradictions of a story rather than searching for answers, writing her characters as “unfinished” because “none of us is a finished person”. Sometimes it seems that it is better to leave questions unanswered.
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