way inn“The bright red numbers on the radio-alarm clock beside my bed arranged themselves into the unfortunate shape of 6:12.”

Although I’m not much of a traveller, I am familiar with hotels. Actually, I quite like them. Mostly, though, I end up in budget hotels of the Travelodge or Premier Inn variety, and am always struck by the similarity that exists between the chains, regardless of where you actually are. The homogeneous nature of them is somewhat comforting, but also more than a little creepy. They can feel like non-places, buildings that you don’t really belong in, and can never feel quite at home.

The Way Inn introduces us to Neil Double, a professional conference-goer. His company serves a singular purpose – if you don’t want to waste working hours at a conference, but still want to know what gets said, Neil goes in your place, making notes, reporting back, and doing all the face-to-face business himself. This time, he finds himself at a conference for conference organisers, staying in another comfortably familiar branch of the Way Inn hotel chain.

However, after attending a few stalls and talks, he discovers that his cover is blown, and the conference organiser, Tom Laing, is not impressed by his new business model, which he claims will lose them ticket sales if one man can do the work of many companies. Banned from the conference, a dejected Neil returns to the hotel. Maybe he’ll get to sleep with that woman, if he could just remember her name, or maybe he’ll find that mysterious redhead he once encountered in a Way Inn in Qatar. He’s seen her once this weekend, and he thinks she works for the hotel. She seems far more interested in the hotel artwork than him, though.

After a restless night’s sleep, and with no conference to attend anymore, Neil begins to explore the hotel further and soon he finds himself stumbling into a mystery so huge and so strange that he could not even have begun to believe it. His life is about to be blown all out of proportion as the art-loving woman starts making him question his own reality. Who paints all those pictures in hotels? Where does one buy clock radios by the thousand? And just what would happen if you exited your hotel room and, instead of turning left towards the lifts, you turned right, deeper into the hotel?

This story actually takes on a conceit I’ve had for ages about these sorts of places and runs with it to places far better, funnier, scarier and greater than I could ever have done. Wiles is a master at focusing on the minutia of the thing, and chain hotels seem to be the perfect places to emphasis the tiny details. The mirrors in the lifts to make us feel less alone; the sofas in the corridors that aren’t meant for sitting in, but instead just to make it look furnished; the courtyards that look like meditation gardens but are only used by smokers; the strange unstealable coat hangers and unopenable windows. The hotel is as much of a character as any of the humans here, and it’s one that I think all of us can relate to.

Far funnier to me though is the idea of a conference for people who organise conferences; companies that specialise in selling lanyards, tote bags or conference centres. The idea that there is an industry overseeing the meetings of every other industry is hilarious, but also almost certainly the case. The idea of Neil being a professional conference surrogate is also an entertaining one, and if the idea doesn’t already exist, then I can see it coming to reality in five or ten years. While moving from hotel to hotel to listen to speeches about things you don’t really care about doesn’t appeal to me, I daresay there would be people willing to do it, and even more willing to pay for such a service.

I spent the first third of the book hoping that it would become what I hoped it would become, and thankfully it did, and the novel you’ve ended with is nothing really like the one you began. But Wiles changes tone and genre so wonderfully that you don’t even notice, and everything seems so real and oddly familiar. It welcomes you in like the little green light that flashes on a hotel lock when your keycard is recognised, and you’re more than happy to stay for the duration.

It’s a great read, and you’ll never want to check out at the end. In fact, you might not be able to…

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