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The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin – Book

swans of fifth

I always had a secret, and to some family members, not so secret, interest in all things artsy-New York City. In eighth grade we took a class trip to NYC. I remember well the mix of butterflies and awe I felt the first time I saw Fifth Avenue and Central Park, stayed in a real hotel, and went to a show (even if it was only the Rockettes) (even if some of my classmates were dropping water balloons out of the hotel windows).

I came from a very poor family and our greatest beauty came from the care our parents lavished on us. Books and movies gave me my first glimpses of both material luxury and true deprivation. So I confess, although I understood that the life of sophistication, style, and wealth can be superficial and exclusionary, and perhaps even psychically empty; it also gave access to wonderful art that expands awareness and beauty that drugs the senses.

I devoured Mademoiselle, Glamour, and Vogue magazines. I poured over the furniture and clothing and the fancy careers in the Doris Day movies, even more important to me than the romance, or at least part and parcel of it. Could love really be love without mid-century modern décor, designer gowns, and furs? This was pretty heady stuff for a girl who slept three-to-a bed until she was ten or eleven and it was a fantasy world that was never realized, perhaps because my creation of it was so two-dimensional.

Anyway, Melanie Benjamin, author of The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel seems to have caught the same bug I did, although perhaps a bit later. Her wealthy role models are from the 70’s, while mine were from the 50’s. She was fascinated by Truman Capote and the New York scene he briefly “swam” in until he sabotaged himself. (Perhaps even in the social sphere “what goes up must come down”.) Benjamin has written a fiction book, but she has done her research. She was as fascinated by these “stars” as I was when I learned about Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table and Sylvia Plath, author of The Bell Jar who committed suicide, so incomprehensibly. (Was it clinical depression or a broken heart, or both, or neither?)

So there is some room in my brain for this gossipy speculation about beautiful, famous (and sometimes infamous) people. Truman Capote as the author’s words describe him, was very young and charismatic, smart and witty – on the edge of fame when he attracted the attention of those five young society swans with their lovely long necks. He was not attracted to women sexually which made it easier for him to befriend these beauties in this close-knit group of New York’s most photographed and admired women, who were really only famous for their style and for who they were married to. The author shows how Truman courted them, worshipped them, was worshipped by them, and then betrayed them.

Melanie Benjamin did a great job with a novel that could have read like a piece of fluff. The details of the lives of the five swans (Slim Hawks, Pamela Churchill, Gloria Guinness, Marella Agnelli, and Babe Paley) are mostly public and have been covered by others in books this author has studied. The dialogue rings true but was created by the author who tries to explain how this unusual relationship might have worked well for all involved until it didn’t. Not my usual fare, but it does tie into my sentimental roots and it is well done. I enjoyed The Swans of Fifth Avenue.

By Nancy Brisson

Purity by Jonathan Franzen – Book

Purity

Much has been said about purity in recent years. Food is one area where claims to purity add retail value for those who feel that eating healthy is actually now a cultural responsibility. Purity in relation to our energy sources – that they need to be carbon neutral and simple mechanisms that tame natural forces for our use (like heat from the sun and wind from earth’s air currents) – is another way the idea of purity has become an obsession for those who can choose. One test mentioned often in Republican circles is the test to determine how closely Conservative politicians adhere to right wing orthodoxy, or, in other words, a test of purity.

All these ideas of purity and more sit behind this story. And lots of impurity sits behind this story also. Purity is the birth name of the main character who leads us into the events Franzen creates for us. What some may find difficult about this offering is the way Franzen jumps to seemingly unrelated characters and then shows us the connection when he’s ready. However it all comes together in the end and I am guessing that the story structure is very deliberate.

Purity lives in a derelict house with Dreyfuss who is one loan modification away from losing his only possession. Three other people share the space with Purity and Dreyfuss; Stephen, Marie and Ramon. Purity is a telemarketer whose main goals in life are to get out from under her student loans and to have a relationship with Stephen which she cannot have because he is married to Marie. A strange German visitor, Annagret, offers Purity – known as Pip right now – an internship with a group called The Sunlight Project, which has far more humane goals than Pip’s current employer. The Sunlight Project is headed by a man named Andreas Wolf who is considered a cult hero. Annagret has Pip complete a weird interview and tells her she is qualified for the internship.

We jump to the story of Andreas Wolf, the legendary project leader of this WikiLeaks- style operation designed to expose world actors whose motives are less than pure. Wolf grew up in East Berlin in the years before the Berlin Wall came down. Does this tough beginning justify some of the traits we find in Andreas Wolf? You must decide.

Pip (Purity) spends lots of time talking to her agoraphobic mom, Anabel, who has every other possible phobia also, but who obviously loves her daughter, although we wonder who takes care of whom in this relationship. Would Anabel have had any kind of life if she did not have Pip? Purity has never been allowed to know who her father is and in fact Anabel says he abused her and that he is dangerous. Pip still wants to find her father. We eventually hear about the romance between Pip’s mom and a man named Tom Aberant (emphasis on the Ab), a relationship which was good for a while and then devolved into spite, anger, and revenge.

There is also a connection between Tom Aberant and Andreas Wolf which I will not explain because it is at the heart of this novel and because it might spoil the book for you.

Franzen wants, perhaps, to prepare us for how very difficult it is for flawed humans to attain anything approaching purity unless it is a name you give your child – a name that she is not even allowed to use. It is a pretty good microcosm of the way the developed world rolls in these early decades of the 21st century.

Jonathan Franzen is a great storyteller. He’s the kind of writer with enough craft that we forget to even be bothered by the words on the page because there are no flaws to distract us. The story is in the foreground, the writing underlies it, but we don’t notice it. Character development is more problematic in Purity because at times Franzen almost seems to be writing separate short stories. We are yanked out of one set of characters and settings into new characters and settings with little transition. But eventually Franzen ties his new characters back to the old characters and voila, the plot thickens and unfolds almost like a mystery story which we solve with the author’s help.

Another difficulty some may find with this story is that the message does not seem unique or profound enough to justify the length and complexity of the story or even to turn this into a truly great novel. On the other hand, it is a good social commentary and it is more substantial than some of the popular novels that are its contemporaries. Perhaps time will change my take on this. Some novels require a lengthier digestive period than others. I still recommend Purity by Jonathan Franzen because, although not perfect in my estimation, it is still a good read.

By Nancy Brisson

Midnight Sun by Jo Nesbo – Book

Midnight Sun.jpe

Jo Nesbø wanted to write a book unlike his usual noir detective stories starring the ragged but morally straight Harry Hole. Nesbø says that he has always admired the Sámi cultural group (we know them as Laplanders) who occupy the northernmost reaches of Scandinavia including his home nation of Norway. The Sámi’s are hunters and reindeer herders and fishermen and, too often, drinkers. Their numbers are small and their towns are too, so most Sámi’s in a given community know each other well. Strangers do not visit the Sámi’s often. The climate is harsh; the sun is either low-in- the-sky and omnipresent, or is totally missing in action. These towns are not normally tourist destinations.

So when a “southerner” turns up in a Sámi town one day when the sun is still out at midnight townspeople guess that he may be on the run from something, but they don’t make a big deal of it. Jon’s first acquaintance when he gets off the bus in the town of Kasund is a native man called Mattis who, when asked says he can sleep in the church. Jon is obviously out of place. Mattis doesn’t even know the half of it, although he suspects. Jon has a gun tucked in the back of his pants. He is hiding a money belt full of stolen money. He is not a bad man really, but he is not a good man either. He is from Oslo and he is running away. He is running away more or less because of what he has not done than because of what he has done. He has suffered a great loss, but he is still trying to fight for his own life, although he is not sure why. He tells the man that his name is Ulf and that he came to hunt and he goes off to sleep in the church.

Then he meets Knut who is ten and his beautiful mother Lea who helps him before he even knows her name. She loans him her husband’s hunting rifle and hunting cabin. She’s a very good person whose father is a preacher in the very strict Læstadian Christian sect which is common among the Sámi people. Her husband is fishing but Ulf senses there is more to the story of this husband and wife than he is hearing.

Jon/Ulf is an unusual character for Nesbø to write about. He has a reputation as a killer but he has not actually killed anyone. He is a thief only because when he had to run he ran with a drug dealer’s money because it was there and it would have been stupid not to take it (although it was also stupid to take it). Jon worked for a low-life crime boss with a fearful reputation, called the Fisherman. The Fisherman does not let anyone who works for him do the things that Jon has done, or not do the things that Jon has not done.

Jon needed a large sum of money for a good reason, although I will not tell you what it was. I will tell you that I enjoyed Jon’s sojourn with the Sámi and the tale is certainly a departure for Jo Nesbø and I can also say that I think you might enjoy it. His Harry Hole books connect with those of us who live in modern cities much more than this short novel does, but the book is a nice tribute to the Sámi people and it is totally fair for an author to use his clout to bring this isolated group of people into our hearts and minds.

By Nancy Brisson

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin – Book

brooklyn2

Colm Tóbín writes about what he knows. He writes about the village where he was born in Ireland. He writes, in Brooklyn, about the immigrant experience. Eilis Lacey, her sister Rose, and her Mom live in an all-female household, although there was once a father and three sons.

Eilis would be happy living her entire life right in this village which she loves, but her mother’s pension is small and there are few opportunities in her village for a career or a good marriage. When Father Flood, who once knew her father, visits his Irish home from America and learns that Eilis knows how to keep account books, he talks he mother into sending her to Brooklyn. On the way out of Ireland she visits quickly with the youngest of her three brothers who all had to move to England to find work.

The author of this book, which was twice short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, knows how to tell a story. He gently leads us through the enormity of leaving home alone at such a young age. We are driven forward into the details of Eilis’s unsought adventure. The Father has strong and trustworthy connections within his Brooklyn parish, although because of her age and the times Eilis’s behavior is under constant scrutiny by her landlady, the other girls who live with her, her employers, and her fellow employees. She stays on her feet, until she doesn’t.

However the author just as gently portrays her crushing homesickness. Finally, when Father Flood understands the depths of her despair he helps her enroll in night school bookkeeping classes so she won’t always have to work as a retail clerk. Being busier is better. Eilis is also encouraged to attend the parish dances on Friday nights.

The second half of this novel was more problematic for me because of the choices that Eilis is required to make. Perhaps the Catholic Church would help a poor girl find the money to travel again back and forth on a ship due to a family matter, but it tested the limits of my credulity a bit. I came from a poor family and, although people were kind, no one handed out large sums of money and pride would not allow us to take it.

Nevertheless, Eilis is presented with an opportunity, however complicated, to return to a life in her Irish Village or to return to Brooklyn. In order to make the choice to stay in Ireland she would have to liberate herself from every inch of her upbringing, every one of her values, and she would have to betray church, family, and a person she loves.

The whole situation struck me as a bit contrived, but, since this author writes about his home maybe he has an actual family or village story in mind. Part of the problem may be that although the author tells a good story he is still a man writing about a young woman and he has the reader viewing her from the outside. This is not a first person story. We care about Eilis, but we are not privy to much of her inner life. The ending is growing on me, but the novel doesn’t really speak to my own life and times (except for the homesickness; that I have experienced).

By Nancy Brisson

Numero Zero by Umberto Eco – Book

Numero Zero

Umberto Eco really knows how to leave a room. He published Numero Zero just before he died a few weeks ago. This is not a book that everyone will enjoy because there is no real action and the “plot” is complicated and somewhat obscure, if this book can even be said to have a plot. We have a publisher who has been asked to create a mock newspaper for reasons which are not revealed. We have a staff that is hired to produce these mock-ups and the staff does not realize that these newspapers are not destined for publication.

There is great commentary on how the media conducts itself as these reporters try to “trump” up stories. In fact they are told that they should pick old stories which have never been resolved and then write articles that “predict” a juicy resolution. One of the reasons that this is difficult for most Americans to follow, or to want to follow, is that these are Italian news stories.

Our main character, Colonna, has worked for publishers and newspapers but he has never found a successful niche. He considers himself a loser. “Losers, like autodidacts, always know much more than winners. If you want to win, you need to know just one thing and not to waste your time on anything else: the pleasures of erudition are reserved for losers. The more a person knows, the more things have gone wrong.”

He would, of course, like to write a great book. When his acquaintance, Simei, offers him a story line for a great book that he can one day write, a book that will appear under Simei’s name, a book called Domani (yesterday, in Italian) he also offers him the job of running the newspaper that will never be published. The issues will all begin with a Numero Zero.

However, as the book opens we have jumped ahead in the story and Colonna finds that someone has been in his apartment while he was sleeping. He is afraid to leave his building. Why the paranoia? Does the danger have any connection to the conspiracy stories that one of his colleagues at this mysterious newspaper, Braggadocio, has been sharing with him, the ones about fascist groups that may still lurk in the shadows and about the possibility that Mussolini did not die as history suggests but lived out his life in Argentina? Or perhaps it was another story about the fake Orders of Malta popping up around the world, very secretly of course.

This commentary on journalism exposes media tactics that are not the sole property of the Italian media. It is a very cynical view of media and that aspect probably does not surprise most of us. But how much of what we think of as news may be invented for the reader’s taste for sensationalism, or extorted by the state with threats, or distorted by successful subterfuge is difficult for readers of news, and in fact even writers of news to judge. Is there any such thing as a free press? Are powerful people always covering up for the human flaws that their power gives them the freedom to indulge?

Umberto Eco died after this book was published. Is he the character Colonna, who began and ended the book afraid for his life after the murder of Braggadocio, the originator of all the conspiracy theories? Were they conspiracy theories or did Braggadocio have a source providing real news? Who killed Braggadocio and why? Now perhaps Umberto Eco had a terminal illness and knew that he would die soon and created a novel that would turn his demise into the kind of cultural mystery he liked to write. Or was Umberto Eco murdered for his stand against Fascism? We will probably never know. Doesn’t matter, Umberto Eco, on purpose or by accident, leaves us with a novel that helps him remain an amazing author right to the very end and which leaves a reader with perhaps just one word – freaky.

By Nancy Brisson

Mrs. Engels by Gavin McCrea – Book

Mrs. Engels

Frederick Engels, as in coauthor of The Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx, as in the thinker who provided the ideology of, political strategies and impetus for the Russian Revolution and several other minor upheavals across Europe, was the husband of the Mrs. Engels who is the title character in this book. Frederick Engels came from a solidly Capitalist (burgher) family in Germany. His family’s business manufactured sewing thread in Germany and in Manchester, England.

Engels did not want to work in the family business but in spite of his anti-Capitalist beliefs he ran the family’s mill in Manchester for most of his adult life and provided the money he and Karl Marx needed to enable them to write about the plight of workers in the 1800’s. There is certainly irony here and a purist would have been at constant war with himself but Engels was apparently more pragmatic and felt that the ends would justify the means it took to get to a society where workers were valued.

History tells us that a young Frederick Engels met Mary Burns, a worker at his mill, when he was 24. Mary fell in love and agreed to live with Engels. They never married. Neither believed that marriage needed the approval of government, society, or the church. Mary had a sister, Lydia (Lizzie) Burns. These things are facts. Little detail is known about these women. History also tells us that Mary Burns’ heart gave out in 1863 – 19 years into her relationship with Engels (although he was not in England for all of those years). There are also historical facts to support that after Mary died, Engels and Lizzie Burns lived together for 15 years. In 1878, as Lizzie was dying, Frederick Engels married her.

Gavin McCrea in his novel, Mrs. Engels, invents the details of the daily lives of these two working women who kept house for Engels and shared his younger years, and he tells their lives to us through the voice of Lizzie (Lydia) Burns. Neither Mary nor Lizzie were known to be interested in housekeeping and yet they both kept house for Engels, although Lizzie and Frederick had two servants when they lived in London. The sisters were Irish and Lizzie could not read or write, but both women were somewhat familiar with the idea of revolution and were friends with some of the men planning and conducting the Irish Revolution, the Fenians.

The author does well at capturing Lizzie’s voice and representing her very believable, although unverifiable, activities. However, since Lizzie’s real focus is Engels the author also tells us about Frederick Engels, but through Lizzie’s eyes. There is not a great love here – no passionate romance – just two people who have become companions and who live well together. The author imagines for Lizzie and Frederick and even Mary exactly the kind of life one might imagine for a Father of Communism, but perhaps a bit more upper middle class. There is no evidence that Frederick cohabited with another woman after Lizzie’s death.

Mrs. Engels by Gavin McCrea, although showing a life that seems quite mundane, seems an entirely plausible account, and gives insight into these two famous men who worked so very hard to get laborers to overturn the social and political order of the times with results that eventually changed the world into the one we still are dealing with in the 21st century. Odd that from something so prosaic came something so transformative. These men gave us a revolution that did not end the inequalities they sought to overcome, but instead left us with an unappetizing political system that affects many people around the globe in powerful ways.

By Nancy Brisson

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates – Book

Between the world and me2

Every American should read Between the World and Me. The book is a letter that Ta-Nehisi Coates has written to his teenaged son, but it is more, way more than that. If you want to surrender your white privilege for a bit and experience what it is like to be a black person in America, immerse yourself in the arc of Coates’ life as he shares with his son and with us. You may be white in America and think that your life does not seem to have any “white privilege” in it. If so, then you need to read this book even more than most of us. We still have a ways to go if we really want to eliminate racial discrimination in our society, which was supposedly built on the precept that “all men are created equal”.

I remember being lifted to a new level of consciousness when I read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison because it hit me so personally. I learned to read using the Dick and Jane readers with the perfect little children with their cute pets and their red wagons. These children were white and lived in a simple and healthy “white” world. When Toni Morrison contrasts her life events with those of those two happy-go-lucky little white children we are aghast that she had to suffer so when she was just a child. And I am not saying that there are not white children who grow up under equally horrifying circumstances, but the idea of an American child using this book to learn while experiencing, in her own life, the things she did is shocking and heart-rending. When Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about “the Dream”, and I assume he means the American Dream, he is, in part, talking about the sweet life depicted in those Dick and Jane readers.

Toni Morrison wrote her book in 1970. You would think that big contrasts between the lives of Americans of African Descent and the lives of white Americans would no longer exist but that is not what has happened. Coates suggests that much of the behavior that makes white folks fear black neighborhoods is just a series of defensive stances by black people who have even more reasons to fear and blame almost everyone. It is important that we understand this.

Coates talks about how difficult it is to understand the passive resistance of his forebears in the 60’s when they fought for their civil rights. He feels drawn to the more militant beliefs and strategies of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. But he does not incite his son to violent activism. Coates goes on to show his son how, as he kept growing and studying, he changed. He expanded his world to include Howard University which had an indelible effect on him. He married. He and his wife settled in New York City and the city, so much more cosmopolitan than most American cities showed him that greater freedom is possible. This also affects his thinking. He studies history and gains perspective on the fact that white Americans are not alone in their imperfections.

Traveling to Paris mellows him and gives him additional insights. But his deeper understandings, although they may “fix” him, have not fixed America and that is the job that lays before us. This talented American writer should not have to fear what America holds in store for his beloved son. There is an awful lot packed in these 150 pages and the book flies by, but the implications stay. If we are serious about finding a way to honor the words (not the deeds) of our forefathers, if we want a strong, healthy nation that works for all of our citizens, then read this book and use it as a way to help us change. We need to change.

By Nancy Brisson

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain -Book

Circling the Sun

When I read Out of Africa by Isak Dineson (Karen Blixen) I fell in love with the whole story, a true story, of a Danish woman whose beau married another woman in a time and place where such a social demerit would likely leave a woman side-lined for life. This was, of course, mainly true if you were a woman raised in wealthy family. If Karen Blixen did not marry well she would end up being a poor woman, dependent on the kindness of family, a dependency often accompanied by stinginess and resentment.

Karen Blixen was not a woman who wanted, or in fact deserved, to be side-lined. Her life in Africa was a testament to an intelligent and resilient spirit. In Kenya she was not so bound by social rules and was able to be bold, to buck society, and still earn a grudging acceptance and perhaps admiration. But she did marry before she left Denmark and that gave her the proper introduction to such a small colonial society.

If you loved Out of Africa, you will, I am certain, love Circling the Sun by Paula McLain. Here we have a version of the life of Beryl Markham, a child of British colonials who lived in Kenya at around the time that Karen Blixen had her farm. Beryl was much younger than Karen Blixen but their lives overlapped and their spirits were similar.

Beryl’s mother found Kenya intolerable and moved back to England when Beryl was very young. Her father raised and bred horses, thoroughbreds, to send to races all over colonial Africa. For many years no one supervised Beryl’s social development. She had a best friend in the local native Kikuru village and she spent her childhood learning to be horse trainer and a Kikuru warrior, both career goals that it was doubtful a girl could ever fulfill. She had almost no feminine influences in her life until her father brought home a “step-mother”, who he could not marry. There was scandal attached to these activities but there was also a shared recognition among colonials that it was impossible to adhere to the rules of a strict social order in this new, hot, and barely inhabited continent.

Beryl Markham, once she became a young woman, in fact a very young woman, was on her own after the failure of her father’s horse “ranch” and she, as a pretty woman and a fresh face became a target for not so innocent flirtation, gentlemanly admiration, and men who needed wives to run their households. Beryl yearned for security and was as yet unaware of how much she was unsuited to be “the little woman”. The men she married were wrong for her and the men she loved were men who were too enamored of freedom to be attracted to marriage. Beryl met Denys Finch-Hatton, the true love of Karen Blixen’s Kenyan life and that romantic, but illusive man also became Beryl’s deepest love, although impossible to claim as such.

When we meet Beryl Markham she is setting out to fly solo across the Atlantic from England to America. The journey of her life, how she got from being a virtual orphan in Kenya to a famed aviator is as wonderful a story as how Karen Blixen owned a coffee farm in Africa, and overlaps Isak Dineson’s story in some very satisfying ways. In fact it is astonishing that two woman with such unusual accomplishments could come out of such a small community of Europeans so far from home. If you always wanted more Karen, more Denys, more Africa, then you will love this carefully researched and well-written book.

By Nancy Brisson

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie – Book

The Portable Veblen

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie is a quirky, quick little novel and has a number of features which make it a worthwhile read. Veblen Amundson-Hovda was named for Thorstein Veblen which sent her into an in-depth pursuit of the philosopher/economist’s life (a misfit) and his work (still read and respected). Veblen is a young woman whose life has been informed by her namesake. (Hard to come up with a good nickname for Veblen.) As a result of her immersion in Veblen’s work she is not a “material girl”. She embraces a simple life. She is learning Norwegian (Thorstein Veblen is Norwegian.)

Paul Vreeland, a young neurologist who has invented a field instrument to try to save brain damaged soldiers, meets Veblen and finds they are a comfortable fit. But it’s early days. There is so much they don’t know about each other. Paul is enjoying his increasing success and he has been taken up by some very wealth Big Pharmaceutical people.

Despite their attraction there are signs that Veblen might have been too hasty about taking this relationship to the next level. For one thing there is the very expensive engagement ring which Veblen cannot bring herself to wear some days. There is Paul’s proposal to hold their wedding and reception at his patron’s glass and steel estate. Veblen has started to talk to the handsome squirrel that lives behind (and sometimes in the attic of) her charming cottage that she lovingly restored from a near ruin. She worries that she might have inherited mental illness from her biological father. Paul comes home with a have-a-heart trap to catch the squirrel so they can release it far away. What will Paul say if he learns that Veblen talks to squirrels?

Then there are their families, each unique, one might say dysfunctional, although in very different ways. Will their differences, their backgrounds, and current events in their lives tear these two apart or, somehow, bring them together? What will win out, materialism or Veblen’s offbeat blend of naturalistic minimalism? There are things to think about after reading The Portable Veblen and, although the choices do not require deep thought to decipher and verbalize, choosing a path that is authentic can take us a lifetime.

By Nancy Brisson

Slade House by David Mitchell – Book

Slade House

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