Book Review: The Electric Hotel, by Dominic Smith

A luminous new novel tracing the intertwined fates of a silent film director and his muse, from the early days of cinema to the battlefields of World War I.

By
Dominic Smith’s latest historical fiction novel about the silent film era has been meticulously researched.
Overall
3

Dominic Smith’s latest historical fiction novel, The Electric Hotel, has been meticulously researched and is a fantastic read for anyone interested in the history of theatre, film and cinema. Using archived material from the Library of Congress, Dominic Smith has sought to explore the material filmed in this era; what life was like for those in theatre, those in war and, for those that started the film industry.

Part of his research included attending the silent film festival in Northern Italy, visiting the Lumière brothers’ museum and even visiting Belgium to follow the path of WWI cinematographers. The Electric Hotel isa woeful tale of love and friendship based on his exploration. How can one recreate a true image of the content of past films when up to seventy five percent of silent films have been lost?

The story begins when a PhD student comes to visit protagonist Claude Ballard at the Knickerbocker Hotel. It is 1962 and Claude is an old man, enjoying the comfort of a somewhat anonymous and slow life. Relics of the past exist in his home and, after Martin’s visit, Claude realises he has disassociated himself from these relics. Only by delving into the tale of his would-be masterpiece, The Electric Hotel, will catharsis occur.

Claude’s story includes how he started in the film industry, how he met his one-time lover and ongoing muse, Sabine Montrose, and then, after years of unrequited love, how it all fell apart.

The Electric Hotel was not only going to be both Claude’s masterpiece, but his revenge against Sabine for not reciprocating his love. Pertinent to its production was Sabine herself, Hal Bender, a skilful stuntman from Tasmania Chip, and Pavel, Sabine’s film coach. Real-life filmmakers The Lumière brothers and inventor Thomas Edison feature in this novel and, as the latter is a miscreant; it will forever alter your view of Edison!

The characters are well developed, each with their own flaws and their own story to tell, and there are no loose ends in the finale to leave us wondering. Although this makes it a somewhat satisfying read, the book could have been condensed as it starts to lose its appeal once things slow down. Whilst it is more realistic than romantic, and contains pockets of rich narrative, one can only read a gloomy tale for so long!

Reviewed by Rebecca Wu

Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: June 2019
RRP: $32.99

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