The title gives it away. A narrow alley near the Fox and Hounds pub opens into Slade House. Here, the last Saturday of October, every nine years, a visitor is beckoned in. What a young violinist, a police inspector, a pudgy college student, and her journalist sister will find comprises a companion piece to the mysterious forces swirling around the humans gathered up into David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks.
Published a year ago, that ambitious novel set in the recent past and near future tracked supernatural entries into everyday British life. Desperate to sustain immortality, a cabal lured a few chosen mortals into what this sequel of sorts explains as “their life-support machine, but it’s powered by souls”. Akin to a bearers of a rare blood type, those selected enter a “Theatre of the Mind” where their “birth-bodies” encounter in Slade House their dreams come true.
Avoiding spoilers makes an extended review difficult. However, as I have read all of Mitchell’s novels, I assure you that familiar elements return. In easygoing style, Mitchell catches the rhythms and diction of his English narrators engagingly. Drawn from 1979 to 2015, tellers speckle pop song titles, then-current events, and trends into their respective chapters. As with all of his fiction, Mitchell sprinkles references to his past work. Here, nearly all of them point to The Bone Clocks, logically.
That novel, as my review “I’ve Seen the Future and It’s Hungry” (16 September 2014) noted, constructed a complicated realm of spectral intervention. Familiarity, therefore, with the Shaded Way, Dusk and the Blank Sea, the Engifted, the Operandi, and Horologists will be necessary to fully follow action here. Additionally, mMitchell expands his concepts of the Lacuna and orisons in Slade House.
The orison, as defined, gives readers a notion of the mechanism Mitchell inserts into the tales. It is a “live, 3D, stage set, projected by the Lacuna in time”. This makes more sense in context, but for readers of some of Mitchell’s earlier novels, however spatially and chronologically sprawling they may be, the liminal goings-on in The Bone Clocks paled slightly compared to the intricate, apocalyptic adventures of Ghostwritten, Number9Dream, and Cloud Atlas. Rather than taking on a new genre, refining the matter-of-fact coming-of-age semi-autobiographical chronicle of Black Swan Green, or the historical epic of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell for the first time in his oeuvre gives us a story that connects directly, with allowance for a few tangents and loose ends, to its previous text.
Rumor has it that Mitchell began this novel as a series of tweets. By far the briefest of his novels, this takes only five chapters, building upon each other in his typical format, to build a narrative. The first-person narrators, in reliable fashion, speak to us in confidential terms, common to Mitchell’s strategy. They prove engaging, and their intimacy encourages readers to trust in them.
Their congenial voices, furthermore, gain their power over us as readers puzzle out the construction of their common situation. Some readers, like myself, may be slower to catch on, but this only enhances the enjoyment, and the emotional impact, of their paranormal predicaments. All the same, Mitchell here falls into his own small trap. He captures well the voices of his characters, but the stage upon which they are placed can overshadow their actions.
That is, as with the predecessor to
, the creaky construction of a novel that enters the well-trodden territory of the Gothic, the spirit-plagued, and the occult mystery can loom so high that the human fates become subsumed into a secondary world that requires its own explanations. As with much speculative fiction, the added effort Mitchell must take on as he tries to explain his blueprints beyond also blurs the sharpness of those he draws from among us, everyday people. He downplays why his narrators are chosen to enter the haunted House, and this disappoints. As the novel builds to its climax, the same slight letdown common now to audiences of many entertainments returns. We realize that this is part of a longer series to come.
Slade House races along, but on Bone Clocks’ familiar ground. Mitchell grants more space to ghosts. This fits into that niche best. The author likes this genre, and his tone—as always in his previous fiction—can win us over. There remains a steady delight in letting Mitchell’s imagination carry one along over hundreds of pages without us even noticing the time. I read
with the same pleasure. Still, I ended it with the same frustration.
It all stops too suddenly, with to me an obvious nod to its own sequel. While I enjoy Mitchell’s novels, I keep having the nagging sense that, with his talent, he could do more with it to dazzle us than he has already. I feel this more strongly, after finishing Slade House.
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