Book review, David Mitchell, Ghost story, Slade House

Slade House, by David Mitchell, 2015

“A board game co-designed by M. C. Escher on a bender and Stephen King in a fever.”

‘Slade House’ is an unexpectedly old-fashioned ghost story. Mitchell has previously written novels in a variety of styles: ’Cloud Atlas’ was a highly successful experiment in form; ‘The 1000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ was a more traditional historical novel, albeit with a twist, and his 2014 ‘The Bone Clocks’ was a supernatural thriller. Perhaps Mitchell Sladehas still to settle on a preferred form, but a ghost story is a fitting addition to his ‘uber’ novel’, even if its origins in a short story are all too apparent. The theme he returns to time and again is the one in the foreground here, the paranormal. Slade House’ is a ‘sort-of’ sequel to ‘The Bone Clocks’, in that it continues the story of a psychic war of good against evil.

Ghost stories are comforting fare. They scare us just a little, but we always know who is levitating the table, and that the creepy janitor is going to be behind the mask when it is removed in the final scene. I half expected to see Shaggy and Scooby skitter down Slade House’s long hallways at one point, so heavily does Mitchell lay on the shtick. The premise is that ‘Slade House’ destroyed in the Second World War, was preserved in time using some astral hocus pocus. Brigadoon-like it re-appears every nine years for its inhabitants, spooky vampire twins Norah and Jonah Grayer, to feast on the souls of their latest prey. We see each group of victims wander haplessly into their trap, taking the literal bait, and slowly realising they are latest in a long list of psychic entrees. The penny usually drops when they see their portrait as in a series of missing person’s pictures. (At least Mitchell avoided having the portrait’s eyes follow them around the room!) The twins are pretty incompetent evil masterminds, and are easily tracked down and despatched by the universe’s spiritual detectives, Marvel-like superheroes dedicated to balancing the force, or something along those lines.

The narrative point of view is that of the victims, which leads to several clumsy “the last thing I saw before my soul was feasted upon by the twins was…” type conclusions. If you can work your way past all this nonsense, the novel is harmless enough, not in the least disturbing; the Guardian’s review called it “The Bone Clocks’ naughty little sister in a fright wig”, which will give you a good idea of the playful tone of the text. This might have made a half decent chapter of ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ or the outline for a ‘Doctor Who’ episode, but as a novel the concept is stretched too thin.

I recall objecting to the exploitative nature of some of the content of ‘The Bone Clocks’. Looking back I can see I said that “well researched historical romances are fine, but they are not normally my preferred choice of reading. Rape/murder/infanticide/torture/time travelling thrillers also have a specialised audience. Mashing the two together, as this novel does, goes beyond bizarre.” The same concerns persist with this novel. It’s a timely reminder that while ‘Slade House’ doesn’t take itself seriously, it does nevertheless deal with serious themes, and that the grief of the relatives of people who go missing and are presumed dead is not to be treated light-heartedly. Mitchell recognises this, but it doesn’t allow it to constrain him.

“We’ll never give up, never stop looking. Always I wonder. Sometimes I envy the weeping parents of the definitely dead you see on TV. Grief is an amputation, but hope is incurable haemophilia: you bleed and bleed and bleed.”


21st century literature, Book review, David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

What a curious, complex novel this is. Let’s start with the title. Late on in the novel we find a reference to Japan (the book’s setting) as the “land of a thousand autumns”. So on one level the novel’s title can be interpreted as “Jacob de Zoet’s life in Japan”, which would be entirely accurate. But on another level the reference to a thousand autumns – ie a thousand years – hints at the theme of unnatural longevity, which is a small under-current in the novel, which I will explore in a bit more detail later on.  
Japan at the end of the 18th century was obsessively insular, and made only the smallest concessions to contact with the outside world, in the form of a very small, physically segregated Dutch trading post on an island in the port of Nagasaki. The eponymous Jacob de Zoet takes a post as a clerk on this trading post to make his fortune, and the first two hundred or so pages of the novel follows his introduction to this bizarre, corrupt community. His contact with the Japanese is very limited, but his eye is caught by a Japanese midwife and medical student. This section of the novel follows a very traditional, linear, well researched formula which passed very slowly for me – the central character is not particularly interesting or appealing, and he has not much to say about his situation other than to pine for his fiancé back in Holland and simultaneously lust after the midwife, Orito. This is presented not very convincingly as a passion which he struggles against despite himself. Quite a few of the critical online reviews mention giving up on this novel due to the lack of pace or action, and I very nearly joined them. Jacob is a passive character who as a first person narrator fails to engage the reader.  
However, the novel takes a sudden shift of tone and speed when the story starts to follow Orito when she joins a convent. When shown from Jacob’s perspective at the end of his section of the novel, this is a voluntary decision, but we are quickly shown that in fact a kidnapping. Orito has been sold into captivity by her step-mother (following her father’s death). Things get much darker quickly – the convent is populated by women rescued from brothels and freakshows with various ill-defined deformities, and they are used as sex slaves by the monks in the neighbouring monastery. Kept pregnant as often as possible, their babies are stolen from them shortly after birth. We are suddenly in a completely different kind of novel, lurid, exploitative, just a little bit racist. The pace of the novel accelerates – Orito tries to escape, and then a complex and desperate rescue plan is implemented. The outrageously sinister figure behind the baby farm emerges as we learn even more horrific details about the convent.
Having set up a scenario where a character we can empathise with and care about is in desperate danger, the focus then switches again, this time back to Nagasaki and the arrival of an English ship looking to plunder from the Dutch settlement. This scene is drawn from real life incident, and provides the catalyst for the novel’s denouement. There are then some hastily sketched notes for a finale in which the author appears to have lost all interest.
Having previously read the Bone Clocks, (ie out of publication sequence) the brief references here to the death cult being more than just a sick fantasy stand out. Lord Abbott Enomoto, the cult leader, mentions at one point that he is over 600 years old – there is no real explanation of this claim, and the reader is given no clue as to whether this is the claim of a lunatic, or has any substance.
My problem with this novel is this – well researched historical romances are fine, but they are not normally my preferred choice of reading. Rape/murder/infanticide/torture/time travelling thrillers also have a specialised audience. Mashing the two together, as this novel does, goes beyond bizarre. I half expected to see some vampires and zombies being woven into the plot. The case for the defence is that this is just magical realism, but I don’t buy that. The very dark aspects of this novel go far beyond the lighter feel of most magical realism novels. I do admire what Mitchell is trying to achieve. He is reinventing the novel, or at least experimenting with its form to breaking point. He is a fine writer, and his poetry, clumsily disguised as prose, is superb. His metaphors and imagery are often remarkable. But building a novel around such bleak, disturbing themes requires more than a patina of historical realism and gentle romance.  I’d be really interested in your thoughts.
21st century literature, Book review, David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, 2014

David Mitchell’s novels defy categorisation. Anyone who has read Cloud Atlas, or seen the pretty trippy film version, will know that he is keen to break down the traditional structures of the novel. The Bone Clocks is no exception, and I am reasonably sure that if it had been published anonymously it would have been quite easy to have identified Mitchell as the author.
I’m quite torn in reviewing this novel. On the other hand, I read it in a few short days, consuming it and carrying on reading long after the point common sense was telling me to take a break and get some sleep. I am trying to avoid the cliché “unputdownable”, but this is the first book for a long time where that has happened, where I genuinely engaged with the characters and wanted to know what happened to them, how the author manages to tie together the strands.
But on the other hand this is really a very silly novel. Woven into the naturalistic strands, stories of a teenage runaway in the seventies, a boorish Cambridge graduate on a skiing holiday in the 80’s (I think) and so on, short stories really but all linked by characters that come in and out of focus, is a time travelling science fantasy thread which on its own would be utterly preposterous and almost certainly unpublished. I suspended critical judgment when reading because the naturalistic sections are so well done, but it undoubtedly makes a strange beast of a novel.
Bone Clocks, incidentally, is a euphemism for people. Quite nasty really. On balance I’d say Mitchell just about gets away with this, although his credit in the readers’ trust is eroded somewhat. But this was enough to get me reading some of his earlier novels, in particular the more recent “Thousands Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” which I am partway through at the moment. I’ve read some of the online commentary on Bone Clocks, and there are some fierce deconstructions of the text, notably on Amazon, that make good points. It is silly and self-caricaturing at points, and evidence of “dialling it in” aren’t hard to find. But I keep coming back to those “just another chapter” nights – am I that much of a sucker for an adventure story?