The debut novel by Australian writer Christopher Currie, The Ottoman Motel is a mystery centred around eleven year old Simon Sawyers. The plot follows Simon and his parents as they reach the small town of Reception on a family holiday caused ostensibly by a sudden need to visit Simon’s estranged grandmother. However, after falling asleep whilst his parents are out for an evening walk, Simon wakes the next morning to find himself alone in his run-down motel room.
Thus Currie sets the scene for his mystery, pairing Simon with a mismatched surrogate family, and employing an accessible third-person narrative which alternates between these characters as the plot progresses. The fact that all of this plot set-up occurs inside the first thirty pages is an act of necessity; the reader is conscious of the plot developments to come – a consequence of selling the novel as a mystery story. Yet this is not necessarily a criticism of the novel’s structure, as the opening provides the rest of the novel with a great deal of potential on which to build. Simon’s narration is engaging and his lack of interaction with his parents, coupled with his observations of their relationship, seems to tread the line between the normal difficulties of parent-child communication and an almost Freudian, dysfunctional relationship. Sadly, this intriguing opening section which is elevated by the lyrical style of Currie’s prose, proves to be as good as it gets.
Currie’s characters are strongly drawn, growing into relatively distinct and relatable figures despite the often cluttered introduction of multiple characters over the course of just a few pages. However, these flaws are quickly forgiven as Currie produces characters which feel lived in, giving hints of their pasts and lending a sense of reality to his multiple narrators. Unfortunately, this broad-brushed effort to create a set of authentic characters does away with any pretence of subtlety, and in some cases verges on the stereotypical, such as in the case of Madaline, a young cop with something to prove who obsesses over research and has a developing drink problem.
However, these issues are all relatively minor, given the atmosphere of creeping small-town suspicion and underlying threat which Currie effectively develops in conjunction with his setting and characters. It is the plot itself which proves to be the novel’s undoing. In striving to become a mystery, the story unravels almost all of Currie’s careful work to establish character and atmosphere, replacing these with high drama and at the cost of logic. There is a sense that there might be a draft of The Ottoman Motel somewhere which remains consistent and character driven through-out, where finding Simon’s parents remains the focus of the plot, and events don’t awkwardly slide into melodrama. The “twist”, when it inevitably comes, is not so much a twist as a complete change in direction, abandoning Simon as the novel’s narrative focus and instead plunging us into an underwhelming conspiracy yarn.
As a result, the atmosphere vanishes as soon as the action kicks off, and Currie employs his promisingly established characters as little more than plot devices. The how and why of the initial mystery, the mystery that has thus far defined Simon’s character in the novel, barely registers by the end, as the reader is told crucial elements of the resolution only in passing in a few insultingly short paragraphs, only for Simon to seemingly accept this explanation without question.
Perhaps the greatest mystery contained in The Ottoman Motel is how such a promising and intriguing opening can lead to such a disappointing climax. Currie undoubtedly possesses the talent to write an excellent novel, and while The Ottoman Motel initially succeeds in terms of atmosphere and characters, this mystery is one best left untouched for those concerned with a satisfying conclusion.