[Chatto & Windus]
Alex, the protagonist of Emma Cline’s The Guest, doesn’t think much about the future. It is August. She is living with an older man named Simon in his holiday home on Long Island. He buys her expensive clothes and bags; in return, she accompanies him to dinner parties and plays the role of diligent girlfriend. In the daytime he works and she swims in the sea. Alex senses that there have been other girls before her, but every time the spectre of the question about what happens next arises, she ignores it: she left her shabby apartment and her escort life behind for this and is determined to cling on to it. The veneer of a real relationship with all its comforts is good enough, and at times she can even convince herself that they care for each other. ‘Simon thought of Alex as a real person, or enough for his purposes’.
What does it mean to be a real person? Alex is hard to pin down. Like the water she is consistently associated with, she is changeable and hard to read, both sea-wild and swimming-pool-domesticated, simultaneously at home in Simon’s life and alien to it. This is the condition, Cline suggests, of high-end sex worker, or perhaps any worker who makes lives like Simon’s possible: constantly peripheral to luxury and never quite part of it. The novel opens with Alex almost drowning, watched over by an ‘utterly indifferent’ world and holiday-goers who don’t notice. As a way of coping, she keeps her emotions muted, dulled behind the prescription drugs she steals from Simon ‘at a steady but undetectable pace, or so she hoped’. There are occasional hints at something she is running from –a man named Dom sending her ‘increasingly unhinged texts’– but her refusal to face anything head on means that the reader is often at odds with her in trying to work out what’s going on. An attempt to read The Guest like a thriller risks missing the point.
When she is thrown out by Simon after getting drunk and messing up her role, Alex decides to stay on Long Island in order to reunite with him at his famed Labor Day party. What follows are a series of infiltrations into other people’s lives as she flits between holiday-goers and those who live in the town permanently, across social classes, into other people’s beds. She is constantly assessing whatever situation she falls into and changing her behaviour accordingly. If she is governed by anything it’s the desire for ease. Only occasionally, when her plans fall through, or her drug-induced haze falls away, does she become gripped by anxiety, by ‘the sick sense that she was a ghost. Wandering the land of the living. But that was dumb, a dumb thought.’ There is no time for self-pity here. It is August; the summer is endless; and if we make it to the promised party then everything will be alright. Just don’t ask what happens next.
Words: Alice Wickenden