Book review: David Mitchell's Slade House reaffirms fiction's vital moral importance

If you haven't yet read anything by the bestselling author, this may be the ideal place to start

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 November, 2015, 4:33pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 November, 2015, 4:33pm

Slade House

by David Mitchell

Random House

All good novels lure us into what Henry James called the house of fiction, where we surrender ourselves and lose track of time. Reading is about desire, and fiction's rooms give us ample space to fantasise selves and worlds entirely unlike our own.

All of which can make us vulnerable. When we read, we let our guard down and let ourselves go. And because the house we've entered is haunted, the dreams drawing us in can quickly morph into nightmares. Sometimes, we get so lost we even have a hard time finding our way back out.

That's what happens to the characters - think of them as readers - who enter the Slade House located within Slade House. It's situated in Slough, a place 20 miles west of London that endured particularly heavy Blitz bombing in October 1940. All of Slade House unfolds during October - to be precise, the last Saturday in successive Octobers at intervals of nine years, beginning in 1979 and culminating in 2015.

The first-person narrators entering Slade House during that span suggest or actually are characters from other Mitchell novels. Thirteen-year-old Nathan, for example, is a dead ringer for the similarly aged Jason who narrates Black Swan Green (2006). Versions of psychiatrist Iris Marinus-Fenby made appearances in both The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) and The Bone Clocks (2014).

They enter through a hobbit-size door in the brick wall bordering a narrow, easily missed alley. Once inside, they encounter what a Slade House host refers to as "set designs for a theatre" of well-played scenes, creating what the visitors want to see. In each of this novel's five acts, those enactments involve some version of our hunger for what the world needs now: love, sweet love.

That could mean a Halloween party, in which a lonely and overweight first-year college student is suddenly desired and popular. Or a chance encounter through which a divorced and embittered man finds a sexy companion. Or a cosy breakfast, in which a boy bonds with the father who moved away.

Are these theatricals make-believe? When did you last attend a dinner party that wasn't? But why are these elaborate spectacles getting staged? And why are the creepy but talented actors mounting them so insistent that the show must go on - even when their initially charmed but increasingly restive audience members get up to leave?

As always, Mitchell combines such genre fiction staples with compelling, fully realised characters propulsive narrative drive and an impassioned moral conviction that even his wildest rides are simultaneously stories of the way we live now. Most important is the belief that despite the seemingly closed and cruel system we inhabit, there's always room to make game-changing choices.

We read fiction because we believe such choices actually matter. If you haven't yet read Mitchell, choosing this novel just might make a believer of you.

Tribune News Service