Departure Time, by Truus Matti, translated from the Dutch by Nancy Forest-Flier (Namelos, 2010, middle grade, 216 pages).
The girl finds herself alone on a plain of red sand. She can't remember who she is, or how she got there, but a storm is coming, so she looks for shelter. And come upon a hotel...decrepit and desolate. Inside she finds no-one, save for a rat and a fox. Suspicious at first, they become more welcoming...suspicious at first, she finds them to be friends.
In our world, a girl has lost her beloved father, a musician all too often away on tour. Only this time he won't be coming back. And the last letter she wrote to him was a burst of anger--he hadn't come home in time for her birthday.
In the hotel, the rat and the fox prove to be well-intentioned inn-keepers for their new guest. Gradually the fox's cooking improves, and the rat becomes more friendly. But still the girl, now calling herself Mouse, doesn't know why she is there, inside this strange story.
Outside the hotel is an old, old, bus, that hasn't been anywhere in years. Inside, Mouse is haunted by the sound of piano being played...just as she has once played the piano, back when her father was alive. As the mysteries of the hotel are unravelled, the girl in the real world faces her grief and guilt...and the two stories move in parallel to the departure time of the title--a time when life can go forward again.
I found it a haunting and deeply moving story--and it really is one story, with the fantastical nestled into the real. They appear at first to be competing narratives, but quite soon the mystery of the hotel becomes clear, and the pieces fall into place. But this isn't a book for the reader who Wants to Know, who wants to be Entertained and who wants Excitement. It requires a certain acceptance that things, strange though they are, will makes sense. It requires that the reader wait with Mouse, in the strange hotel, for the right time to come. It is full of metaphor, and the gradual clarification of what is happening inside the hotel serves as a lovely imagining of what is happening to the real girl, trying to live a life without her beloved father.
It is a book full of very powerful and poignant emotion, one that will stick with me for a long time.
(Kirkus included this in their 2010 list of best sci fi/fantasy for kids, but it isn't really).
Other reviews at Fuse #8 and Wands and Worlds.
Here's another great book about a fantastical old hotel that offers shelter to a bereaved girl-- The Hotel Under the Sand, by Kage Baker (my review). I'd happily read more of this very specific sub-genre...I seem to find it very appealing!