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.

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