I was hesitant about reading “Slade House” when it came out a few months ago because I didn't finish his previous novel “The Bone Clocks.” Mitchell's recurring technique is to write really involving smaller realistic stories within larger, ambitious and fantastical narratives that say something meaningful about time and humanity. This was most successfully realized in his tremendous novel “Cloud Atlas.” The problem is that I come to feel really involved with some of the smaller enclosed stories and grow impatient with the larger all-encompassing story. This is the reason I put aside “The Bone Clocks” because I didn't care enough about the supernatural elements that tied disparate stories set in different time periods together. He uses the same structure in “Slade House” building quieter short tales of an insecure boy, a philandering detective inspector, a teenage girl self conscious about her weight, a lesbian journalist and a black Canadian psychiatrist into a chilling narrative of a pair of twins' paranormal existence. One by one these people are lured to a grand old house and then they are never seen again. The difference is that the length of “Slade House” better suits this technique. “Slade House” is only 240 pages compared to “The Bone Clocks” which totals 640 pages. This makes “Slade House” a much more fast-paced and thrilling read.
David Mitchell is such a skilled writer in the way he quickly and convincingly creates narrators that are immediately identifiable. Switching between all the different personalities I listed above over a 36 year time period could feel jarring to a reader, but Mitchell uses choice details and compelling voices which grab your attention. Even with an unlikeable character like Inspector Gordon Edmonds who makes sexist and racist remarks, he's a dynamic and vivid personality who is engaging to read about. Mitchell confidently brings in points of reference from the high-brow like famed musician Yehudi Menuhin to the ever-loveable Miss Piggy. At times Michell scrambles too much to invoke an atmosphere for the time period by flipping through news events or popular culture from the time period so it can begin to read like a wikipedia page for the year in question. But, on the whole, their stories feel layered and deeply thought out.
Mitchell gives a great sense for the depth of personality and the way people present version of themselves: “People are masks, with masks under those masks, and masks under those, and down you go.” It's interesting to see how over the course of the novel the sinister twins Norah and Jonah's characters gradually develop. The various people these mystic beings inhabit break apart to reveal their foibles and tensions between the pair. So, by the end, I felt as involved with their stories as I did with the tales of the individuals they lure into the supernatural house.
“Slade House” is essentially a group of short stories held in the framework of a fantasy novel. I admire Mitchell's ambition and the scope of his imagination to meaningfully tease larger questions out of tales that straddle great swaths of time. But such scale isn't always needed. In Mitchell's novel “Black Swan Green” he confines his narrative to a year in the life of a thirteen year old boy to great effect. “Slade House” is a thoroughly entertaining read and a refreshing new spin on a haunted house story, but I hope Mitchell doesn't always feel the need to contain micro stories within grandiose macro narratives. Sometimes a whole world of meaning can be felt the smallest of spaces.