Postal Reading group
August 2020
Notes on the book Slade house by David Mitchell

I normally enjoy David Mitchell’s books, and Slade house is, unaccountably, one of the few I haven’t read. Reading some of the other comments from this group would seem to suggest that opinion on the author, and specifically this book, is fairly evenly divided.

Anyone who is familiar with the author’s previous work will be surprised at the length of this present book: at only 230 pages it is by far the shortest of all his books. However, the style and structure are very much characteristic of the author. Although this could be considered as a collection of five short stories, in reality it is more like five variations on a theme which all link together to form a longer work.

The basic theme behind each ‘story’ is that, once every nine years, a ‘chosen’ individual is lured to the mysterious Slade House, and enters through a tiny door in the back wall, before finding themselves an unwilling participant in a very macabre ceremony. While there are sufficient differences to keep the stories interesting, there are also common factors to link them together: the jogger and the St. John Ambulance feature near the beginning of each. Likewise, the previous characters being ‘retained’ as portraits on the attic stairs is a very neat way of linking the stories. Towards the end, the individual sections seem to depart from the theme slightly. For example, when we reach the fourth section in 2006, Freya Timms apparently doesn’t get as far as Slade House, while, in the fifth section, Marinus seems altogether more knowledgeable, which will come as no surprise to anyone who has previously read Bone clocks.

The two features which, in my mind, characterise Mitchell’s work are a willingness to experiment with unusual structures, and the re-appearance of characters from previous books. As explained above, this book has the structure: While not as extreme as, say, Cloud atlas, it is still remarkably effective. We also meet some familiar characters: not only Marinus, but also Chetwynd-Pitt and the fictitious novelist Crispin Hershey, with his equally imaginary work Desiccated embryos (so don’t worry, I won’t be circulating it in this group next year!) Incidentally, according to an interview with David Mitchell in the Guardian, the title of this imaginary novel was based on a piece of music by Erik Satie, which is described as “one of the ones you’re not supposed to listen to!” So I don’t think I’ll be seeking that out, either.

Many of Mitchell’s works also have a few surreal moments, and this is no exception. Indeed, with this book, and the previous Bone clocks, he seems to have moved towards science fiction and fantasy novels. Again, readers will notice the reappearance of the ‘Orison’ and immortality from previous works. Indeed, some of the antics in this book (like occupying someone else’s body) reminded me slightly of The Anubis gates which was circulated in this group last year, although without the time travel element. Similarly, while I find this present book to be easier to follow, the comparison with Tim Powers’ work is not unjustified, and the plot is no less complicated.

Indeed, even after the final section from 2015, which goes some way to explaining what happened in the previous parts, I am still left with some questions. For example, was Fred Pink real, and if so, was he working for the Grayer twins all along? Similarly, what happens to those who enter Slade House, but who are not destined to ‘participate’? If they are disposed of, one way or another, why do both Gordon and Sal see previous characters? Of course, perhaps I’m taking it too seriously, but there’s certainly plenty to confuse.

Beyond the structure of the book, and the more fantastic elements, the author has created some quite interesting characters in their own right. For example, the boy in the first story, Nathan, is well portrayed. Clearly bullied at school, and enjoying uneasy relationships with his parents, he reminds me slightly of Jason in Black Swan Green. Equally, I can’t help but notice a similarity with Sal from the third part; both characters seem to be the outsider. Perhaps this is what is meant by “the right sort”. I was also amused by the university paranormal society (would it qualify for funding from the student union, I wonder?) Equally worrying is the fact that it has an astrophysicist and a mathematician among its members, although none of the students seem to take it too seriously.

In summary, while this book is significantly shorter than Mitchell’s previous work, it has inherited much of the author’s characteristic style. Although short and comparatively easy to read, it still manages an intricate plot which will be appreciated by readers of the previous novel. I seem to remember reading that this book was aimed at the young adult group, although I can’t now find anything to back up that assertion. If true, it might explain why its shorter than usual, but in any case, there’s certainly plenty here for Mitchell’s devotees.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler