Saturday, September 29, 2018

Slade House by David Mitchell

I've not touched in with David Mitchell for a while, having not read his last major novel "The Bone Clocks", from which some ideas in "Slade House" are pulled out. In essence this is a book of ghost stories. The Slade House of the title did once exist but has since been demolished and built over, but once every nine years - relating to the stories here - its becomes corporeal again, accessible via a small hidden gate in a wall. The tropes of the classic ghost story are all here - the haunted house, the secret garden, and the two mysterious twins who inhabit this place. The story behind what it is, is something stranger and more in the fantasy genre than in the classic ghost story, but the tropes are ably handled.

Mitchell has always been such an adept writer that the many different landscapes in his novels mean that it sometimes appears he can turn his hand to anything, and you can tell he leaps with glee on the ideas here. In the first story, set in a recognisably drab seventies, a young boy is dragged by his mother who is a struggling classical pianist, to play at the big house. On arrival he is met by a boy his own age who seems as much a loner as he is. Mitchell has previously written about growing up in the seventies in "Black Swan Green", the book this most resembles in his past works, as its also a novel that is at the same made up of somewhat distinct stories. Here the stories are sequential, one taking place every nine years. The best is the first - "The Right Sort" - where Nathan is our narrator. A bright but troubled child, possibly suffering from Asperger's or similar, he's a beguiling narrator, more perceptive than all the adult's around him, but also, with his own skewed view of the world, unable to fully understand what is happening to him. His parents are separated and his father is in "Rhodesia" (it's set in the seventies when that was still its name), where he has gone to visit. So unlike his uncomplicated, macho father, he's now tagging along with his distracted, artistic mother. For the first time in the garden of Slade House he meets Jonah Grayer, one of two twins who live there. Time begins to bend, and what appeared to be a magical place, turns into anything but.

The stories that follow take up the plot at nine yearly intervals. Mitchell has to be applauded in the invention he shows - so that rather than each visitation of Slade House into the real world being a repeat of the past one, it also shows changes, as the "operandi" of the two souls who inhabit it - the Grayer twins - becomes clearer.

I read the novel quickly on a short flight to Brussels and back and its as readable as all its work, but, as Graham Greene might have put it, one of his "entertainments." For all Mitchell's gifts, the one place I sometimes finds he struggles with is in writing about the contemporary everyday Britain. The second story, where a sexist policeman is our narrator, feels cliched in the extreme, whilst the third, about a group of nineties students at a party, also doesn't entirely ring true. Combining this with the fantasy elements forms an uneasy mix and tone. He's on a surer footing when telling the story of the twins' lives, as telepaths who learnt esoteric arts - this is Mitchell at his storytelling best, far away from the every day. It's certainly said to be standalone from "The Bone Clocks" but its a reminder I need to read that novel. All the stories here have their merits and feed on from each other and its a very clever book, with a satisfyingly ghoulish ending.  So certainly an enjoyable read, but not essential by any means.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Lit in September.

Hideously busy, with one thing and another, so this is an inarticulate list. Buy, go to, check out.

Michael Conley read from his new fiction collection tonight. Those who have seen him read know that Michael's great skill is to take ideas not just as far as they can go, but further. His story about a group of seals is another of his great animal stories - though he's equally as adept at finding absurdity in the human. Flare and Falter is out now from new Birmingham based publisher Splice. Ably supported by local readers, Kate Feld, Tania Hershman, Abi Hines, Sarah Clare Conlon and Steve Smythe, it was a lovely evening at Didsbury's Metropolitan.

This Saturday is the ever excellent Northern Lights writing conference at the Waterside in Sale, Creative Industries Trafford now venerable event. Despite a plethora of writers and writing opportunities in Manchester, there's never been that much training or support for literary types, so this is a one day conference at a reasonable price that offers a great opportunity for networking, masterclasses and topping up your professional development as a writer. Should still be tickets if you are free on Saturday. Past keynotes have all been excellent - from A.L. Kennedy, Will Self and others - and this year's should be equally good, as its Chocolat author Joanne Harris, already a formidable social media presence, I expect a feisty opening before the day's wide range of workshops.

Then next Friday, its the launch of "We Were Strangers", a book of short stories inspired by "Unknown Pleasures" the iconic first Joy Division album. Nearly 40 years after its release, this album - the only one released in Ian Curtis's lifetime - is now an acknowledge classic. The cover of this anthology, designed by Confingo's regular designer Zoe Maclean, is a nod to Peter Saville's original artwork. Edited by Manchester prize shortlisted author Richard V. Hirst, it is being launched with a reading at Waterstones in Manchester on Friday 13th September, including Booker longlistee, Sophie Mackintosh, alongside Zoe Lambert, Nicholas Royle and David Gaffney.  Its sure to be a good night.
The book is released today, and on sale online from Confingo Publishing in Didsbury.