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January's Novel Pairing

The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving
Mad Dog Shiraz

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As months go, January is the darkest – almost as dark as this highly eccentric coming of age classic. Happily, ‘The Hotel New Hampshire’ is also hilarious. Helping Damian choose our #NovelPairing are James Franklin from Corney & Barrow and Simon Heafield from Foyles.

Welcome to the Hotel New Hampshire. ‘Frank’s queer, Franny’s weird, Lily’s small and Egg is Egg,’ says the narrator, John, of his eccentric siblings. He’s in love with his sister, Franny. Along with a performing bear, they start life in the years before World War II in the rambling Hotel New Hampshire run by their eccentric parents. Did I mention the bear?

“All John Irving novels have the same mad elements,” says Simon from Foyles. “There’s always at least one bear, real or imagined, and some references to wrestling and Vienna. It’s all very dark but done so lightly.”

That doesn’t mean Irving doesn’t care about what he puts his characters through—one sibling is forced to watch while another is raped, an event which traumatises the whole family. It means he’s a master of understatement. Here, two central characters (I won’t’ say who) perish in a plane crash: “Less than six hours out of Boston, they struck the Atlantic Ocean a glancing blow – off the coastline of that part of the continent called France.” Disaster and drama delivered so matter-of-factly become the stuff of life – lives you don’t want to live but are curious to observe.

The five siblings fight each other and their parents and they all get weirder and weirder as they move from the original hotel in New Hampshire to another hotel in post-War Vienna where the shadow of the Nazis lingers. There the book descends into anarchy as the second hotel becomes a headquarters for prostitutes, bomb-making revolutionaries and a woman called Susie who dresses up as…a bear. They all – well, almost all – end up back in America where Lily, who is basically a dwarf, uses their adventures as material for a best-selling novel. Their fortunes soar and also crash.

Throughout all this mayhem it’s love that holds the story, and them, together: “Families must be like this -gore one minute. Forgiveness the next.” And a shared humour as dark and dry as coal.

“Gruner Veltliner seemed a good place to start,” says James from Corney & Barrow. “Because so much of the book happens in Austria. Not many people know this grape so it’s a left-field choice but it’s a mad-cap family.”

“It’s got lots of bite,” says Simon from Foyles. “And freshness. It definitely works for the Vienna bit of the book.”

“My next choice is very naughty,” says James, uncorking a San Emilion Pedro Ximenez sherry. “It’s opulent, rich, suggestive, and this book is full of innuendo.”

“It’s definitely fulsome,” says Simon. “I’m not sure I could drink more than a glass.” But what a glass! It’s basically the love-child of sticky toffee pudding and Christmas cake.

James’s final suggestion is Mad Dog Shiraz: “Partly it’s the name—this book is mad—but this is a big, spicy wine for a big, spicy book.”

The Hotel New Hampshire is, at times, an unsettling place to be. The Gruner is the perfect accompaniment to the goings on in Vienna and the Pedro Ximenez speaks to the book’s sexiness. But our #NovelPairing has to be the Mad Dog Shiraz – it’s got plenty of kick but it will also comfort you through the madness. Enjoy your stay!

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