David Mitchell is probably best known for his novel Cloud Atlas (2012), which was made into a film. He is the author of seven other (mostly creepy and always very readable) novels.
Only one year after his much-heralded The Bone Clocks (2014), Mitchell has published a new, shorter book, which had an interesting genesis. The Slade House, which has been described, inadequately, as ‘a ghost story’, started life as a series of 140-word tweets, which became a novelette and then developed into a slightly longer novel.
When an author writes prose and dialogue as well as David Mitchell (shortlisted and long listed for the MAN Booker Prize more than once) he can get away with almost anything. In Slade House (Sceptre/Hachette Australia, 2015, 233pp) he beguiles, teases and plays with the reader in a way that is both delightful and sometimes a tad irritating. It is not the sort of playfulness of Nabokov or John Fowles — it comes from a more metaphysical place, and you can hear Mitchell sniggering and licking his lips as he attacks the keyboard, conjuring up new delights or horrors for his readers.
Slade House in some ways shows its genesis as a ‘novel that grew’. Its form is episodic, with the story taking place over five chapters, each set nine years apart. The action starts in the 1970s and ends in 2015. Mitchell’s imagination knows no bounds and with the assurance of a writer in control of his material, he leads his first victim down a narrow London laneway, to discover ‘a small black door’ with no handle. As we scramble through the portal, we find ourselves in the extensive gardens of a sizeable mansion. A mansion that could not possibly have fitted into that part of London. The questions tease: ‘Where has Slade House come from?’ and ‘What really goes on inside?’
The house is inhabited by the mysterious and quixotic twins, Norah and Jonah Grayer, who every nine years invite a lonely or troubled ‘visitor’ into Slade House to engage with them and, inevitably, to assist them in slaking their unusual thirst. And no, they are not vampires. The first visitors are an engaging, autistic 13-year-old, Nathan Bishop, who discovers the black metal door with his valium-popping mum, Rita. Rita, who becomes the first of several narrators, is an accomplished pianist, and a short time later we are somehow not surprised to hear that she is engaged in a musical soirée in an upstairs room with Yehudi Menuhin.
There follow an uppity teenager, a recently-divorced policeman with a penchant for attractive middle-aged women; a shy college student called Sally Timms (a nod to the singer of the London alternative rock band The Mekons) some children, a traffic warden and some lesbians. All of whom play out their stories whilst being manipulated by the increasingly malevolent twins, who have a knack of choosing visitors who may not be easily ‘missed’.
As the times and the narrators change, so does the tone and the pace, and the reader almost needs a virtual pin board to keep track of who is who and who is telling the jokes (of which there are more than in your average ghost story). Some of the character depictions are quite moving, as with the young girl who joins a paranormal society that investigates mysterious disappearances and finds the object of her affection holds similar feelings for her, only to slide with him into a conclusion that is more than unrequited.
Here’s a quote from one of Mitchell’s more memorable characters:
‘Grief is an amputation, hope is incurable hemophilia: you bleed and bleed. Like ’Schrödinger’s cat (qv) inside a box you can never open.’
Impossible to classify and hard to put down, as you read Slade House (or indeed any of David Mitchell’s novels) you know he is playing with your head, and occasionally you can chide him for pushing things too far. But the worlds he creates, and the language he uses to create them, are beguiling, intellectually stimulating and in the end, compulsively entertaining.
Slade House is published by Hachette Australia. You can buy the book here