Saturday, August 13, 2016

Readings: Slade House

Slade House by David Mitchell

David Mitchell is an author I've read twice before, with polarized results. I loved The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, while I quite disliked Cloud Atlas, innovative and genre-bending though it was. So I was fully in the middle, expectations-wise, before getting into Slade House. 

So what did I think? I am somewhere between strongly like and love. Slade House (what a marvelous cover!) is a quick but creepy dive into what has surely been a powerful theme in human existence for its entirety: the quest for immortality. Here, the twins Jonah and Norah Grayer take this quest to supernaturally frightening levels, surfacing once every nine years to lure victims into their net via the eponymous old manor that somehow eludes both maps and physical bearings. Only a select few gain entry through its improbably tiny iron door set into an insignificant corner of Slade Alley. 

Each chapter is a separate but interlinked story, told from the viewpoint of a doomed victim. After the first two chapters, the pattern is established in that one knows the final fate of these unfortunates, but each voice is so distinct that it is indeed the same story told completely differently. I must admit that I wasn't enthralled by the first chapter, maybe because of my own bias against very young male protagonists, but I'm glad I stuck around.

When the backstory emerges in chapter 4 is when things get really riveting. You sniff the beginnings of an ending, and I am willing to wager that most readers would not have put the book down from here on out. I did not. Without giving anything away, let me just say that the ending hints at more to come: One particular inhabitant of Slade House is not ready to give up the quest for immortality just yet.

Despite being a psychological-fantastical-metaphysical mashup of literary genres, the narrative has some some real-world objects appearing as recurring totems in all chapters: The grandfather clock with no hours, but with only a cryptic saying etched on its face, the disturbing portraits lining the corridor, the jeweled fox-head hairpin, the pale door, and even a 'moon-grey' cat. Slade House is creepy alright, almost with the feel of a genteel, manor-styled horror club from which escape is physically and metaphysically impossible.

Tightly laced with a sort of venomous urgency, Mitchell's century-jumping tale of soul-hunting is slim enough for some to read in a single sitting. Slim but with curves in all the right places, I might add. (How haunting is the line, "My soul is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen" as the last line of a story?) I'm told that Slade House is in fact linked with Mitchell's earlier offering The Bone Clocks, but since I didn't read that I'm in no position to say whether that would have enhanced this reading. Suffice to say that I'm pleased enough with Slade House as it appears here. 

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