David Mitchell’s Slade House: Soul Food for the Average Reader A Review ***Spoilers***
I have read three novels written by David Mitchell, including Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks and Slade House. A while back, I posted a review of Cloud Atlas, expressing my frustration with the novel’s lack of cohesiveness. What really connected these different stories and characters of the Cloud Atlas? The implication was that these characters in six different stories were the same souls. Many of the souls we engage in one life, we engage in the next. Mitchell ties them together with chance discoveries and birthmarks.
Despite a hasty explanation in the last few pages, the Cloud Atlas was all sizzle and very little bacon.
The Bone Clocks, his 2014 novel, showcases Mitchell’s prose. It is dazzling shorthand, a clever first person narrative that lets you know right away who these characters are and what’s important to them, but nothing goes deeper and for me, they’re all rather flat. The Bone Clocks begins in the 1980’s and ends in the 2040’s with the last of humanity struggling to survive on a polluted Earth. A runaway teen, Holly Sykes, connects several stories. She’s a bystander in the war between the Horologists and Anchorites.
Horologists are immortal beings who share the minds and memories of human hosts.
Horologists often choose to enter the mind of a dying newborn and they become that child until it’s time for the next host. Any human who is capable of consent must agree to be a host.
Anchorites are humans who practice dark magic in order to continue to exist.
Though, like Horologists they can share space and thoughts within another human, they choose to end human lives to extend their own physical existence. As the novel continues, Holly transitions from bratty teen to mother, then to widow. The last segment shows Holly at the end of her life living on an island, struggling to protect her family from the brute forces that arise when our sick planet can no long sustain life as we know it.
So why am I reviewing Slade House instead of The Bone Clocks?
It’s because Slade House was written for readers like me, rather than for critics and academics. Yes, I know there are plenty of readers who adore Mitchell’s work. I enjoyed reading The Bone Clocks. His clever prose keeps you skipping along, but despite the supernatural battles, there’s little in the way of conflict resolution. What there is doesn’t build satisfactorily. The most invested I became was when Holly’s daughter was missing. I related to Holly’s desperation and fear.
When the little girl turned up after a frantic search, I wondered what purpose did this segment serve.
What more did it tell me about Holly or her situation? Like my response to reading Cloud Atlas, I found it difficult to care; nothing in The Bone Clocks touched me. In order to refresh my memory (sorry, much of that brilliant prose was utterly forgettable) I read several reviews and a synopsis.
Another thing: Mitchell caters to the publishing world with characters like Cavendish (Cloud Atlas) and Hershey (Bone Clocks).
I found the insiders’ quips and snide observations about writers and writing annoying. In a review of The Bone Clocks (THE STAR online, 9/28/14) Priya Kulasgarian writes of the “caustic rendition of the literary scene” and how “high minded” readers would find this “self-indulgent . . . if you’re a little lowbrow like me . . . Crispin’s acidic cynicism is a delight to read.”
Then why did I hate these insider meta-jokes—this ripping away of the “fourth wall?”
Maybe my brow is lower than Kulasgarian’s. After reading a number of sophisticated reviews of Mitchell’s work, I am confident in saying my brow is not higher.
I did learn of Mitchell’s plan to connect all of his novels into one humungous work of fiction.
The same characters from one title pop up, however briefly, in subsequent books. I haven’t read all of his books. I’m positive that readers who have read them all are big fans. What matters to me is a story well told, with characters that resonate–a story that I can remember longer than a day.
Nifty prose, innovative structure and grand design are entertaining but beside the point unless I care what happens and why.
In Slade House, Mitchell gives us a short novel (239 pages—The Bone Clocks is 624 pages) with a simple structure of five first person accounts of characters falling victim to a pair of supernatural predators, the Grayer twins. Born in 1899 England, the Grayer twins, Jonah and Norah, are telepathic and determined to live forever, a goal that becomes reachable when they learn the arts of the “Shaded Way.”
As in The Bone Clocks, the Shaded Way involves Horologists (see this post’s second paragraph) and Anchorites.
The twins are antisocial Anchorites. Since Horologists tend to dispose of any soul-sucking Anchorites they encounter, Jonah and Norah hide out in Slade House. Built in the 1930’s for the purpose of luring and trapping victims, Slade House is a place tucked away in a secluded London alley. Though the house was destroyed when German bombs took it out in WWll, time stopped in the 1930’s when the twins created an “orison,” a place outside of time and space. They want their physical selves preserved. To do that requires lots of tricks and the right kind of nourishment.
The twins must eat a soul every nine years.
Not just any soul—it’s got to be the soul of an “Engifted” (psychic) human. When out of a mist, like Brigadoon, Slade House appears and with their bodies stashed in the orison attic, the twins go grocery shopping every nine years by commandeering the bodies of various humans. Through various maneuvers, the intended victim enters the “lacuna” (the space where Slade House used to be and the site of their power). A variety of illusions take place until the victim eats or drinks the “banjax,” something that loosens the soul from the body. Then dinner is served.
The twins are a nasty pair, making unkind jokes about their victims.
Each victim becomes the first person narrator of his or her demise.
In 1979 it’s awkward and peculiar eleven-year old Nathan, a Valium user and reluctant escort to his mother, a social climber.
Next is the 1989 victim Detective Edmonds, who looks for clues on what happened to Nathan. The seductive widow he encounters is really Norah, and when he climbs the stairs, portraits of prior victims line the walls. He recognizes Nathan and hears the boy whisper that he should look for things in the cracks, things that might be used to beat them. “Too late for you,” the boy tells him, “but pass it on to the next (victim).”
The passage where Edmonds describes seeing his soul has stayed with me:
“It’s almost see-through. Like gel, or egg white, and filled with shiny grains of dust, or galaxies, or… God it’s beautiful. Jesus, it shimmers. It’s alive, it’s mine . . .”
In 1998, the victim is Sally, a college student with a weight problem, a beautiful, supportive but distant sister (Freya) and a romantic nature.
Sally is a member of a paranormal investigations group. Sally is also “Engifted,” a fact that brings her and the group to Slade House. Soon, Jonah and Norah dispatch all of the group but Sally and then impersonate the others while playing cat and mouse games, a way to “season” Sally’s soul for good eating with “a sprinkle of last minute despair.”
As poor Sally tries to figure out what’s going on, she encounters the ghost of Detective Edmonds.
Edmonds gives Sally something he found in the “cracks.” It’s a six-inch needle. As Sally observes her soul being eaten, she warns the twins: “someone’ll stop you one day…”
I would hope so. Is that someone Freya, Sally’s older sister?
It’s 2006 and the loss of her sister Sally haunts Freya, now a New York journalist. She interviews Fred, a witness to the disappearance of Nathan and his mother. Fred describes the history of the Grayer twins and their unsavory magic. Alas, Fred isn’t really Fred and the barkeep isn’t a barkeep.
You guessed it. It’s the Jonah and Norah show.
Soon, Freya finds herself immobilized, her soul emerging as the twins prepare to chow down. Then the needle (found in the cracks) that was shown in Act Four appears again. Sally’s ghost makes good on that promise of “someone” to make the pair pay.
Score one for humanity when Sal plunges it into Jonah’s neck. How’s that for “seasoning,” bitches!
Freya still dies, but her soul remains hers. Not only is Jonah incapacitated, but also dinner plans are cancelled.
The next one is nine years away. What to do?
The answer is nothing until 2015. Dinner-to-be is Iris Marinus-Fenby, an academic specializing in paranormal phenomena. Mitchell fans know that Marinus is a character appearing in numerous Mitchell novels. In The Bone Clocks, Marinus is a Horologist.
Jonah is weak and fading fast; Norah is desperate for a hearty meal to power up the orison, save her brother and herself from certain death.
This time we know something they don’t. Iris seems an easy, juicy target, but things keep going wrong. Norah improvises and all is going well until Iris reveals her true nature. Jonah becomes a pile of ash. Just as Norah begins to die, she spots a pregnant woman and takes up residence within the fetus. Norah vows revenge and we have the setup for another Mitchell soul sucking tale.
I wish Mitchell would give his human characters in The Bone Clocks and Slade House more power.
The conflict was much easier to follow in Slade House because when we listen in on the twins, they spell out who they are and what they want; however, the humans remain clueless. In Dracula, Van Helsing explains the nature of Dracula’s evil. Jonathan knows what he’s up against and chooses to fight.
In the war between the Horologists and Anchorites, we’re collateral damage, seen as pets or a natural resource.
Horologists are the SPCA and the Anchorites are Kentucky Fried Chicken. Mitchell is very good at rendering character types, but for me, with the possible exception of Holly Sykes, there is no soul to eat. Regardless, Slade House was a very good read, easy to follow and understand, though it abruptly ended when it should have been just starting.
Okay, Mr. Mitchell, I’d like some more, please.