A review of the latest novel by David Mitchell, author of “Cloud Atlas” and “The Bone Clocks.”
by David Mitchell
Random House, 232 pp., $26
“So souls are real. My soul’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” marvels one of the five narrators in David Mitchell’s new novel as she watches her soul ooze through a hole in her forehead and gather in a “small clear sphere” before her eyes.
Souls are also, in Mitchell’s world, edible — slurpable, actually, like a high-octane smoothie. He even provides the calorie content: One soul, divided in two, will fuel a pair of evil twin “atemporals” (humans exempt from the ravages of time) through nine years of stolen youth.
If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because Mitchell’s previous novel “The Bone Clocks” rose on the same cracked foundation. Neither sequel nor prequel, “Slade House”, which grew out of a story released as a series of tweets, is a companion volume that distills “The Bone Clocks” to its creepy essence. Unlike its sprawling, globe-trotting forerunner, this slim narrative spans only thirty-six years, from 1979 to the present; it is set entirely in and around the eponymous haunted mansion in a dreary London; and rather than climaxing in a cosmic battle between good and evil atemporals, it zeros in on just two bad ones — the twins Norah and Jonah Grayer — and the hapless Londoners they prey on.
Those hapless victims, the narrators of their own entrapment, give the novel what pulse it has. Mitchell brilliantly impersonates the fatal vulnerabilities of ordinary people who go looking for love in the wrong places: a pre-adolescent nerd whose mother constantly implores him to “act normal”; a randy, ridiculously vain London cop who, after sex, boasts that “my meat and two veg are simmering nicely”; a lovelorn overweight college student and her bright, brittle sister, a gay reporter. The foibles of these poor souls make them peculiarly susceptible to the supernatural wiles of the ravenous twins. Magic, Mitchell suggests, is most successfully deployed on those most desperate for enchantment.
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Mitchell himself pulls off a bit of magic himself in squeezing so much life and suspense out of the dark doings at Slade House. Faithful Mitchellists are rewarded with winking allusions to previous books — and in the final section, a pivotal character from “The Bone Clocks” appears, portentously, to tie up loose threads and scatter a bunch of new ones.
But by that point, the narrative machinery has begun to clank so loudly that keeping disbelief in suspension becomes nigh on impossible. Mitchell resorts to the hackneyed trick of filling in backstory through a journalistic interview (the fact that it’s all a hoax just makes it more improbable). And he forces us to eavesdrop on ghoulish, jargon-ridden chats in which the clairvoyant twins explain to each other, entirely unnecessarily, what they are up to and why.
Judging from the comic-book vengeance that Norah threatens to exact one day as the curtain falls — “You killed my brother Jonah Grayer — and now I kill you” — there will be future volumes in this vein. A pity. In “Cloud Atlas” and “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,” Mitchell established himself as one of the most daringly inventive novelists of our day. But “Slade House”, like “The Bone Clocks” puts that brilliance at the service of something trite, simplistic and ultimately rather dull. The sooner Mitchell gets this soul-sucking mumbo-jumbo out of his system and moves on, the better.