If you want to do well at Christmas you have to lay the groundwork. I have worn my heart on my sleeve and it paid off. In my pile of Christmas books (sorry – I mean gifts!) was the latest David Mitchell novel.
Do I need to mention I loved every second while reading ‘Slade House’ (2015)?
This isn’t to say I wasn’t disappointed when I first picked it up. ‘Slade House’ hasn’t the daunting, wondrous girth of ‘Cloud Atlas’ or ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ or some of Mitchell’s other works.
This is the novel that started as a series of 140 word tweets so I should have expected something a little more succinct than the past few novels. Mitchell has contained his story almost completely within one block of an English city rather than using the entire world as his playground. The characteristic bolts through time are still there: five sections, each nine years apart, for reasons that become apparent in the plot.
It is marketed as a spooky book. As I stayed up late reading and reading (just one more page!) I was not scared. It was too much fun. I knew I was in safe hands when the first of the first person narrators, a young boy, informs us he is not a Scout anymore. ‘Mr Moody our scoutmaster told me to get lost, so I did, and it took the Snowdonia mountain rescue service two days to find my shelter.’
Plausibility gets tested – hey, Mitchell, this doesn’t add up, I thought at certain moments. Is this a dream? Has the narrator just woken up? Surely not! Mitchell has his narrator draw attention to the cliché he has foisted on us:
Mrs. Todds my English teacher gives an automatic F if anyone ever writes “I woke up and it was all a dream” at the end of a story. She says it violates the deal between reader and writer, that it’s a cop-out, it’s the Boy Who Cried Wolf. But every single morning we really do wake up and it really was all a dream.
Of course, Mitchell is not being so obvious. He lets us out of our misery and does the big reveal, pulling open the curtain so we can see what he is up to.
Fans will read the book to ferret out all the intertextual references to his other novels and will be rewarded. (Some fans really get into this and refer back to the author). When mentioning famous celebrities in passing, why not include the composer Vyvyan Ayrs (‘Cloud Atlas’) alongside Charlie Chaplin, and if a journalist works for a magazine, why not Spyglass, a publication Mitchell created years ago – Luisa Rey worked for it in ‘Cloud Atlas’ and Ed Brubeck worked for it in ‘The Bone Clocks.’
Mitchell does the cultural reference and the language of each era with aplomb. He can also do profound: ‘People are masks, with masks under those masks, and masks under those, and down you go.’
I can now only look forward to my next chance to enter the Mitchellian universe. He’d better have another novel on the go – or what else will loved ones buy me for Christmas?