DAVID MITCHELL Slade House. Reviewed by Michael Jongen
Slade House began its life on Twitter as the short story ‘The Right Sort’, and as recently as 31 October 2015 Mitchell was tweeting as @I_Bombadil, one of the characters.
The chapters – more like interlinked short stories – move along in chronological order, with different narrators joined by time and place. They can be unreliable witnesses, and the wise reader will be looking for clues immediately. Those who enjoyed The Bone Clocks will come to this book for the guest-starring appearance of one of its characters (here Doctor Iris Marinus-Fenby) and references to others, but there is more than that to tease fans. This is gorgeous genre writing and plotting, featuring characters worthy of our attention, care and loathing. Lean writing by Mitchell and the plot-driven story may compel many readers to read it quickly through to the end. Others may choose to savour each of the sections before moving on.
Each chapter is set in a different time period, beginning in 1979. Mitchell is an excellent chronicler of popular culture and history and the period settings and the allusions to events and prominent figures of the times are highly enjoyable, as is the grimy and authentic picture of the parts of London he knows so well.
‘The Right Sort’ begins with Nathan Bishop being dragged to a party by his mother in 1979. He is on the spectrum and not convinced that he is going to have a very good time. However, he has secretly taken two of his mother’s Valium and he is waiting for the pills to kick in. He is an obsessive, lonely kid and he has no idea how special this day is until he arrives at Slade House, where his mother has been invited to play violin in front of Sir Yehudi Menuhin:
‘… but Lady Grayer insisted you come along, so … you have to act normal. Can you do that? Please? Think of the most normal boy in your class, and do what he’d do.’
Acting Normal’s like Blending In. ‘I’ll try.’
Lady Grayer does indeed have a special interest in Nathan, and introduces him to her 16-year-old son, who takes a shine to him and leads him off to play some games. His drugs start to take effect …
In ‘Shining Armour,’ set in 1988, a self-serving policeman meets Chloe Chetwynd, the current owner of Slade House, as he investigates the continued disappearance of Nathan and his mother Rita. Sparks fly; soon Gordon and Chloe are having an affair, and he dreams of marrying her. Then he discovers a portrait of Nathan, and on exploring further, finds the boy’s mother:
‘Come on, Mrs Bishop,’ I whisper, ‘out you come. We’re leaving’
The prisoner takes uncertain steps to the cage door where she grips my hand and steps out. ‘I, I …’ Her breathing’s all raspy.
In 1997 a group of students gathers in the third instalment, ‘Oink Oink’. They are meeting at the Fox and Hounds, the nearest pub to Slade House, for a paranormal expedition. Their excitement is compounded by the surfacing of a witness, Fred Pink, who saw Nathan and his mother just before they entered Slade House. They have linked the dates of their disappearance and that of Detective Inspector Gordon Edmonds and believe they know how to enter the house and that there will be safety in numbers. Sally, the narrator, is along for the ride as she fancies Tod. All seems a let-down when they enter the house to find a university party in full swing.
Sally becomes alarmed at the party and fears her drink has been spiked. Luckily she meets up with Tod:
Tod swallows. ‘I’m afraid it’s worse than an acid trip, Sal.’
I see he is serious. I fumble at what he means. ‘What then?’
‘We joined ParaSoc for paranormal experiences. We’ve found them and they are not benign. They’ll try to stop us getting out.’
I’m afraid to ask: ‘Who’ll try to stop us?’
Tim glances behind us at the pale door. ‘Our hosts …’
The reader by now is screaming at Sally to run for her life.
In 2006, Sally’s sister returns to London from New York for the first time since Sally went missing. Unlike Nathan, his mother and DI Edmonds, Sal is loved and is sorely missed. In ‘You Dark Horse You’ Freya Timms meets with Fred Pink, an old man with incidental and personal connections to the disappearance of her sister at the Fox and Hounds. He has a very strange story to tell and shows Freya evidence of his research into Slade House and its owners, the strangely bonded twins Norah and Jonah; so far, so Gothic. This penultimate tale sets up for the climax in 2015, ‘Astronaut’, where Bombadil meets with Dr Iris Marinus-Fenby for a glorious finale from which the reader will emerge fully satisfied … ‘And here comes our guest …’
David Mitchell Slade House Sceptre 2015 HB 242pp $27.99
Michael Jongen is a librarian who tweets as @michael_jongen and microblogs at http://larrythelibrarian.tumblr.com
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