Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Guests Check in, but They Can Never Leave

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Guests Check in, but They Can Never Leave

Article excerpt

It's downright scandalous for a little old English lady to write like this. A.L. Barker's latest novel, "The Haunt," beguiles us with a quaint hotel on the Cornish coast filled with quirky guests on holiday. But you might say her bite is worse than her barker. After more than 50 years of award-winning writing, she's still the sweet neighbor whose cat kills your birds. Her literary crumpets are laced with jalapeno.

The Bellechasse hotel looks romantic at a distance. From there, you might not hear the proprietors arguing with their clumsy waitress, or the crash of pans, or the shriek of a guest.

"This was no five-star hotel," Mildred Gascoigne admits as she dresses for dinner. "The brochure described it as 'for connoisseurs of peace and plenty,' " but these unsettled guests find no peace or plenty at Bellechasse.

Lonely Mildred, for instance - "singular by nature," she announces - can find no relief from her father's rejection many years ago. She suspends her fusty scruples just enough to reach out to Mr. Piper, a famous advice columnist craving a moment of anonymity. But he finds himself skirting the pursuit of an obnoxious journalist named Senga ("Agnes" spelled backwards), who hopes to expose the corruption of cult heroes.

Unable to corner him, Senga drifts instead to Charlie Olssen, a poor artist who's trapped at the hotel until he can get his car fixed. He's come to Cornwall to return a nude painting of his ex- wife, but she seems interested in reclaiming more than his canvas. While he waits for her decision, he spots a grumpy old man in a wheelchair named Mr. Eashing, who might make the perfect subject for his next masterpiece.

Mr. Eashing, however, is more interested in finding a nurse- companion who will listen to him read Dickens without giving him the dickens. Bettony, the Bellechasse's belligerent waitress, may be "useful in the way of a willing horse," but it doesn't look promising.

Down the lane from the Bellechasse, Elissa and Owen Grierson have just moved into an old bungalow, "more a flight of fancy than a leap in the dark . …

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