David Mitchell, using only his words, describes scenes to us which are vivid and which seem real. He reminds me of an artist who captures a person’s appearance and spirit and brings a portrait to life with just a few strokes of his/her pen or brush.
Slade House is evoked in just such a way. We enter the house each time through a very small black iron door set in a brick wall in a twisty narrow alley. In what should be a small city lot we find ourselves in an improbably spacious garden that leads to an impossibly large estate house. A young boy and girl live here when a mother and son enter in the opening scenes. They enter almost unwillingly, at least the boy does and with trepidation. A portion of our brain which locates us in geographical space is signaling that it is dissatisfied in some indefinable way. There is a niggling of warning. But there is also a promise that Yehudi Menuhin is within and that he wants to enjoy the mother’s piano skills.
Inside there is a staircase with odd paintings, ancestors but not; there is a landing; there is a grandfather clock keeping ponderous time, and there is a door with a sinister (for some reason) doorknob. There is an attic and a ceremony and two missing persons.
After that it becomes a sort of Groundhog Day. Slade House appears again and again to an odd array of “chosen” people. But unlike Groundhog Day there is no positive learning curve, no happy outcome. What happens to Slade House reminds me of my “house dreams” which begin with a plausible intact suite of rooms that become increasingly architecturally deconstructed towards the time when the dream ends and I wake.
But it is not really the house that is most interesting – it is the twins, the boy and the girl. It is the time anomalies foreshadowed by the annoyingly noisy grandfather clock. It is the battle from Mitchell’s last book The Bone Clocks, the battle we thought was over, being fought again in this world.
What is Mitchell’s fixation with Horologists, with time, with people who live beyond the ordinary life spans most of us are subject to? Are there people who prolong their lives at the sacrifice of the lives of others? Well, when asked in that way the answer could possibly be yes. Are there people who live life after life but not at the expense of others, who sort of police the “bad” life-extenders? Why is David Mitchell obsessed with this topic?
Those who extend their lives at the expense of others offer nothing to the world – no insight, no wisdom. They are takers and self-absorbed for reasons of survival. Is it this self-absorption, this degrading repetition without progress or meaning or any care at all for the “bone clocks” around them that he wants us to think about? Perhaps some of us just live so heedlessly and move from pleasure to pleasure that it ticks Mitchell off and he wishes we would all take a long view and live meaningful lives that take lightly from the world and preserve it for future generations. Is it an ecological message? It’s a mystery – his message, one I still have not deciphered, but Slade House is an astonishing place created by a consummate author in a place where it should not logically exist.
If you like novels that resolve in tangible ideas then Slade House probably is not for you. But for others that very intangibility may make it irresistible.
By Nancy Brisson