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Slade House by David Mitchell

Slade HouseThrough a small, easy-to-miss door in the equally easy-to-miss Slade Alley, those who are invited, knowingly or unknowingly, can find the garden entrance to Slade House.

The house itself is large and imposing, perhaps past its prime, but always a surprise to find in the context of its surroundings. In fact, how does a house this big, with grounds this extensive, even fit in the apparently available space? Why is it impossible to find its front entrance? And why, on the last Saturday of October every nine years, is someone brought by circumstance to Slade House and never seen again?

I’ll confess that I’ve always found David Mitchell a difficult writer to get on with. Most of my past efforts to get through his books have foundered in the early stages, though for a variety of reasons, so it’s hard to make a definitive “I don’t like the way he writes X” statement. Slade House proved the exception, which it achieved largely by being pacy, intriguing, engaging and creepy in a way that draws in the reader - for the most part - pretty effectively.

The book’s structure; each chapter focusing on one of the house’s guests with a nine-year gap between them; is designed to bring events to a head in a final chapter set on Hallowe’en 2015, the week of the book’s release and, in fact, the day I read that final chapter. Because I can buy into a cheesy gimmick with the best of them. This is part of what makes Slade House a fast read - it’s only five chapters with a shift in time and point of view accompanying each. Just as the reader starts to get used to one voice another comes along to pick up the narrative and move everything along. Had time permitted it would have easily been possible to have finished it in a single session.

This is also a structure which could feel extremely disjointed, but Mitchell avoids that becoming a problem by building connection points between the individuals' stories that become more significant as the story progresses. There's a sense that each visitor to the house leaves something of themselves behind, literally or figuratively, that influences the wider story, which helps make this feel like one story rather than five.

On the downside, Mitchell uses a lot of fairly obvious shortcuts to establish his various time periods. Having lived through each one of the Saturdays the book depicts I’ll give him points for evoking the feel of each era quite effectively, but he does it largely by a very repetitive use of cultural cues; what Saturday evening’s TV schedule looks like, for example. This makes his scene setting feel more like an act of research than an act of literature.

The plot suffers from some illogicality which I could dwell on but which would inevitably end up getting into spoilers very quickly. Suffice it to say that quite a lot of the central characters' motivations and decisions don't really stand up to scrutiny.

And for an author of Mitchell’s experience and credibility, there’s a astonishing amount of “As you know, Bob” dialogue, with two characters who run through the whole story in particular spending a lot of time telling each other things they already know. Worse still, Chapter Four is essentially one enormous info dump telling the history of Slade House and its inhabitants, but done in such a manner that it gives away the chapter’s twist, which removes a lot of the positive anticipation that starting the final chapter should bring with it.

Fortunately the last chapter largely recovers from its predecessor's stumble, telling a far more tense tale than the previous parts as events conspire to create a race against time and a couple of late surprises which collectively earn Mitchell back some of the credit he squandered with Chapter Four.

Slade House is an easy enough read, and overall I’d recommend it, but if I’d been in an even slightly less tolerant mood regarding the illogicality, info dumping and bad use of dialogue this could quite easily have been yet another unfinished David Mitchell book taking up shelf space in our house.