Critics’ Debate: Heartbreak Hotel by Deborah Moggach

In response to Cath Barton’s review of the new Deborah Moggach review in Wales Arts Review, Angela Graham looks deeper into the author’s representation of Wales and its people.

Some books get under my skin and some get up my nose. Deborah Moggach’s novel Heartbreak Hotel managed to do both. I found it enjoyable and irritating. Cath Barton’s review of it was entirely sweet but, for me, indigestible, like tucking into a cream bun only to find it filled with mustard. The spluttering indignation that followed my reading of her review was of the have-we-read-the-same-book? variety.  Beneath the sweetness and the froth,’ she writes, ‘sits something which slips down easily but gives satisfaction, at least in the short-term.’ Not for me. Beneath the sweetness and the froth sits something which slips down easily and reinforces lazy, prejudiced attitudes towards Wales.

Wales is the setting for this hotel-based book, as India was for Deborah Moggach’s hotel-based, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (originally entitled These Foolish Things). In both, disaffected English people travel to a location which, to them, is exotic and foreign, whose natives display attitudes and behavior which are disconcerting but which reveal, by means of various mild challenges, a different way of tackling life. As a result the English learn to relax, get a second chance at happiness and set up, in the foreign location, a modus vivendi which preserves the essence of the English way of life with the advantages to be had from cheap labour and the resourcefulness of the natives.

Heartbreak Hotel by Deborah Moggach 292pp, Chatto & Windus, £14.99
Heartbreak Hotel by
Deborah Moggach
292pp, Chatto & Windus, £14.99

I am not going to take an author to task for what she chooses not to write about, in this case what Deborah Moggach chooses not to write about Wales, but I do feel free to comment on how she does portray the country. The major unsaid fact about Heartbreak Hotel is that it is a novel in which Wales exists almost entirely as a resource for outsiders. Furthermore, this exploitability is presented in the book in such a by-the-by way that I must wonder if the author herself has noticed. 

There is no mention in Barton’s review of the prominent running contrast in the book between the soullessness of the city and the community spirit of this country town. Moreover, there is no consideration of what it is – or who it has been – that has created this wonderful community.  

Knockton is a town in the Welsh Marches which is 176 miles from Soho – ‘almost in England’ as protagonist Buffy ‘defensively’ says. We are told late in the book that ‘nobody’s heard of it’, making it perfect for marketing to ‘the rich’ as ‘something that money can’t buy, something that you have here in spades – great countryside and the sort of community that doesn’t exist anymore.’

‘Nobody was quite what they seemed, in Knockton as in life, and few of them were Welsh.’ The inhabitants are largely incomers, including many current or former hippies. When I was in Powys recently someone told me that Deborah Moggach owns a house in a Marches town. Perhaps that’s true. Are there small towns in Powys like Knockton? Yes, to some degree. But they are in Wales and the book’s overall attitude towards Wales is uneven. The country is alternately praised and castigated for the same things. Its distance from London is lamented and appreciated. It is denigrated for its weather. ‘Besides, it was raining again. In fact, a gale was blowing. Though Knockton was only a mile from the English border its weather was unmistakably Welsh.’

Knockton is praised for demonstrating behaviour that to the English seems so incredibly civilised as to be from another age, such as polite teenagers (desirable), but it is also seen as a backwater: its gentleman’s outfitters is ‘one of those retro shops, that hilarious gents’ outfitters’. It can be laughed at and also appreciated but there is a patronising element in all this.

The modern world has not passed Knockton by. A salesman from Dai Jones’s Outfitters has had a sex change and the town is the victim of frequently mentioned cuts and youth unemployment. Gruffydd the blacksmith used to ‘do horses but now he makes bondage frames for the S&M market.’

The Welsh characters who do feature are indeed few. The name of Dafydd, a barman, is mis-spelt only once. When the Welsh do speak their accent is described invariably as ‘sing-song’: one is a postman’s sexual fantasy and the other a man who stops his car to proposition for sex.

As for the Welsh language, when a young Indian woman gets lost and turns up at the hotel she says, ‘I thought I must be lost because the signs were in a funny language.’

‘“Welsh,” said Buffy.’

Cath Barton praises the author’s tactic regarding this language, ‘its (Knockton’s) Welsh location remains vague but convincingly in the Marches, the author being sensible to place it far enough away from Welsh Wales to avoid any language complications.’ Complications for whom? ‘Sensible’? I think Deborah Moggach is a good enough writer to have dealt with such ‘complications’ if she had wanted to.

Cath Barton adds, ‘There is, unsurprisingly, plenty of Welsh rain!’ How amusing. But is such laughter here entirely without contempt, not simply of the rain but of the endearing, unthreatening, unimportant country it falls on?

Yes, Heartbreak Hotel, like The Best Exotic … is a fairy story. It will slip down easily but remember the bitter in the sweet. This morning in The Guardian an interview with an actress begins, ‘The big question concerning Saoirse Ronan – apart from how on earth one pronounces her first name…’ Many an Irish person has no problem pronouncing that name. It is the Irish word for freedom. No language is unpronounceable to those who speak it, only to those who won’t take the trouble to respect it. This is the cultural context in which fairy stories are not to be excused rigorous examination for, as we all know, they are the sweetest and the hardest-hitting of fables and they both reflect, and form, our view of life in the real world – or even Wales.