Twenty Great Books set in APARTMENT BLOCKS
Thriller set above CRANS MONTANA (Switzerland)
18th February 2021
The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse, thriller set above CRANS MONTANA.
At the turn of the 20th Century, Crans Montana in the Canton of Valais (Wallis) was established as a mountain retreat. The Hotel du Parc (now the Grand Hôtel du Parc) opened its doors under the auspices of a doctor in Geneva, who saw the benefits of mountain air in treating patients. Ideal indeed for treating patients with TB, which – before the advent of antibiotics – was hugely contagious. Crans Montana went on to become known as the Pearl of the Alps.
Having read Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” which is set in a fictional sanatorium, modelled on one in Davos, I am pondering why more novels aren’t set in these foreboding and rather grim sanatoria, which were the go-to retreats for ailing patients.
Crans Montana is therefore an ideal setting for The Sanatorium. The book opens as Elin is trundling up in the cable car from Sion to the resort with her boyfriend Will. They are going to be residing at the very posh hotel Le Sommet to celebrate her brother Isaac’s engagement to Laure. Laure works at Le Sommet with sibling duo Cécile and Lucas who run this luxurious retreat. Set at 2,200M it is surrounded by the oftentimes harsh mountain terrain.
And there they are. Ensconced in luxury, in an old sanatorium that has had a tremendous if rather brutalist makeover. Before the conversion commenced, there were protests and bad press, and family friend Daniel, who masterminded the design, was found dead in rather gruesome circumstances. The taint of something unsavoury hangs over this historic building.
Elin is recovering from her suspension as a detective; she made an ill-judged intervention and now she is here to bond with her brother. As the weather comes in, the hotel becomes cut off. An evacuation is in order but only a few guests make it out of the hotel to a safer location – a small proportion of the guests remain holed up, including of course Elin and her boyfriend Will and hotel staff members. Another murder, then another, all with gruesome aspects (the descriptions of masks and surgical implements associated with the killings add a real and dark frisson, which combined with the claustrophobic setting, make for an atmospheric read). There is no help from the police down in the valley in Sion, they simply cannot get to the hotel, neither by road, which is blocked by a solidified avalanche, nor by helicopter due to high winds. Elin is on her metal, using her police investigative skills and racing against time to seek out the murderer who, of course, now seems to be one of them.
What the author does so well is render a taut, creeping tension, interspersed with gruesome discoveries. The sanatorium and its original facilities have been incorporated into the modern scheme (ill-advisedly, as one might have guessed) and there are still locked rooms full of equipment and old dossiers. She paints a stark palette of weather and setting, the mountains looming in a rather foreboding way, the snow falling and packing against the windows and all with an eerie sense of anticipation…it feels all very palpable and real.
I think what didn’t overly convince me was the trajectory of the narrative as it worked towards the conclusion. There is just too much going on and it felt that there wasn’t quite a clear end plan, it seemed to tack, albeit tensely, towards the denouement. This was in contrast to the well laid out progression in the main part of the novel. And of course, there are revelations galore.
The finalé didn’t detract too much from the intensity of the story – it is gripping and immersive and one to watch in 2021.
The novel has been chosen as Reese Witherspoon’s February 2021
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