Slade House, home of the Grayer twins, Norah and Jonah, was destroyed in the German bombing of London in 1940 and the whole area was built over. How is it then, that at 9-year intervals from 1979 to 2015, someone opens a tiny iron door in a dark wall in a narrow alley and finds himself/herself in the gardens of Slade House? And that person is never seen again. Time-travel, you say? No, it’s not that simple, because Slade House is different each time: sometimes the garden is in its full glory, sometimes bedraggled and dying; sometimes the house is polished, aristocratic and serene, sometimes it’s the scene of a druggy nineties party, sometimes it’s a decaying ruin.
It’s a beguiling scenario, but handled with surprising clumsiness by the gifted David Mitchell. Each section is told by the person who enters the garden and never leaves, but of the five people the only ones who come to life are the autistic young Nathan in the first section (1979) and the fat unhappy student Sally (1997). Here’s the policeman Gordon Edmonds (1988):
A jogger ran past in a blur of orange and black, but joggers are tossers. Three Asian kids went trundling past on skateboards, but I’d had enough of our curry-munching cousins for one day so I didn’t ask them. The multi-culty bleat on about racism in the force, but I’d like to see them keep order in a town full of Everywherestanis… (40)
Edmonds is a crude caricature of a misogynistic, violent, ignorant and racist male. Even more surprisingly, in the same section Mitchell resorts to a form of “telling” that would make a beginner blush – characters telling each other what they already know so that the reader will know it too. I could hardly believe my eyes when I read this conversation between Jonah and his sister:
(Jonah) “For fifty-four years our souls have wandered that big wide world out there, possessing whatever bodies we want, living whatever lives we wish, while our fellow birth-Victorians are all dead or dying out. We live on. The operandi works.”
And Norah replies,
“The operandi works provided our birth-bodies remain here in the lacuna, freeze-dried against world-time….” (78) and so it goes on.
In 2006 Sally’s sister Freya turns up trying to find out what happened to Sally, and meets in a pub Fred Pink, a man who has done intensive research into the phenomenon of the incorporeal Slade House and the missing people. This is another extended section of telling, in which Fred describes the history of the Grayer twins, their telepathy and ability to mind-read, their inculcation into even more arcane arts as students of “The Shaded Way” in the Atlas Mountains, and essentially the explanation of the whole mystery. The character of Freya is only cursorily sketched; her role, it seems, is to be the audience for this story (and to be the fourth disappearee).
In the final section (2015) the narrator is Dr. Iris Marinus-Fenby. Readers of The Bone Clocks will recognise Iris Fenby as one of the narrators, and Marinus as the name of a character in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, who is an “atemporal”, a soul capable of reincarnation. Needless to say, the Grayer twins have a bit more difficulty with the canny Iris than they did with any of their previous victims.
Mitchell, it seems, is constructing what he calls a “uber novel” in the linkage of characters from his various books, continuing their lives into other times and other psychic universes. As someone who loved both Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green, I wish he’d turn his eyes back to the apparently smaller picture, which is actually a bigger one in the truths it conveys about the way we live, in dream and in reality.
David Mitchell, Slade House (Sceptre, 2015)