By David Mitchell
(Sceptre, €17.99 stg h/b)
English born, Clonakilty (by way of Japan) resident David Mitchell’s new, shortish novel is an offshoot from his last one, 2014’s rather more epic tome, The Bone Clocks. It shares with its predecessor an overriding theme of Immortality and How To Achieve It, although while in the previous work this goal could be arrived at through fair means or foul, here we take a dramatic turn towards the dark side. The complex emotions of grief and hope, and how they feed off each other, also emerge as central concerns in this particular tale. All this, as well as being a contemporary variation on the venerable tradition of the scary Halloween haunted house story.
Every nine years, over a timespan beginning in 1979 and culminating in 2015, on the last Saturday of October, a ‘guest’ finds their way, via an obscure door down a dark alley, to the titular abode. There they encounter, in various elaborate, occult-induced disguises, telepathic twins Norah and Jonah Grayer, who feed off the souls of these ‘engifted’ victims to further their own longevity.
The first of the five sections, each told from the point of view of a different narrator, began life as a stand-alone short story published on Twitter in 2014. Entitled ‘The Right Sort’, it is recounted by 13-year-old Nathan Bishop, whose literal-mindedness signals that he has Asperger’s Syndrome (leading one to speculate that, in Mitchell’s view, Twitter’s 140 character per post format is a medium ideally suited to those with Asperger’s – and that observation is meant as no disrespect to those living with the condition, but rather as a jibe at those who live as though they might as well do so). Accompanied by his depressed, pianist mother, Rita, purportedly to a party where she meets Yehudi Menuhin, a grizzly fate awaits young Nathan.
Next up is recently divorced policeman Gordon Edmunds, seduced by the equally recently widowed Chloe Chetwynd (a roleplaying Norah). In 1997 we are introduced to a university Paranormal Society field trip, which does not end well for insecure student Sally Timms. 2006 sees Sally’s elder journalist sister Freya lured by supposed witness Fred Pink (a roleplaying Jonah), who thoughtfully provides much of the twins’ colourful back story.
Things reach a satisfyingly dramatic conclusion in 2015, with the appearance of this cycle’s intended target Dr. Iris Marinus-Fenby, a psychiatrist who knows more about the twins and their scurrilous activities than she lets on. Aficionados of Mitchell will recognise her name from previous novels of his, as it is his habit to have characters reappear across his entire oeuvre, in what he has described as ‘a kind of uber novel.’
Given the scale and ambition of some of Mitchell’s previous books, from 1999’s debut Ghostwritten, to the subsequently filmed Cloud Atlas, and the more recent The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Bone Clocks itself, and not forgetting the more straightforward but equally compelling number9dream and Black Swan Green, Slade House may appear as a more minor addition to the endlessly unfolding Mitchell canon. But it shares his signature entertainingly inventive imagination. Postmodern narrative pyrotechnics married to traditional page-turning suspense: he’s got it cracked.