Slade House by David Mitchell

Return of the Gothic Novel, now with added post modernism!

David Mitchell has again demonstrated just how powerful his imagination is with this powerful, lyrical, suspenseful and, at times, horrifying story of psychic vampirism. This is a novel which will grip you to the very end, an ending which was not the ending I was wanting, but just as Slade House refers back to previous novels, The Bone Clocks especially, it may well be the seed of the next Mitchell work.

While The Bone Clocks is a sprawling, many faceted novel in which the action takes place over five continents, Slade House concentrates within a single London setting. Notwithstanding that the characters may imagine they are elsewhere.

There are five chapters, or perhaps episodes would be a better word, each told in the first person, by the victims, as long as they can… (You did know it was a horror story, didn’t you?) Each narrator is unique and Mitchell has realised them extremely well, from nerdy schoolboy, to hard boiled copper, to neurotic student and sophisticated journalist. Though there is little room for character development. they have a reality which makes them sympathetic at their end, even if not before. Since none of them could have recorded their experience (well not quite true), we are, as if inhabiting the characters, and thus we become them, in some sense then, their experiences are happening to us.

I am not usually very sympathetic to magic and supernatural in a novel. Apart from the obvious violation of physical laws and naturalism they are too often it is used as a deus ex machina, to cover for poor plot structure. However, Slade House has sufficiently tight plotting to induce me to be somewhat more willing to suspend disbelief in this instance. The switch between real world and hyper-reality can be hard to detect, only becoming apparent in hindsight as deception is revealed, though, as the novel progresses, one pretty much assumes that it is all un-real.

On its own terms Slade House is a well crafted jewel, well worth reading. In the context of Mitchell’s oevre, I am driven to wonder, is it a coda or an entreacte?

Soup, beautiful soup

Reading has been on the back burner, except for the book group book, for the last couple of weeks as I have been trying to get the garden, and also the garage, back into order.

The Beauty of Humanity Movement is set in Hanoi Vietnam, in the present and from the perspective of the North. The author, Camilla Gibb, has a social anthropology background and has, no doubt, used her research skills, both in the literature and amongst the Vietnamese diaspora, to produce an authentic sounding portrayal of the city and its history.

The plot is driven by Maggie, a Vietnamese-American woman who is searching for relic of her father, who was a member of the fleeting intellectual movement that emerged just after the Viet Minh victory over the French in 1954. She becomes a catalyst for changes in the characters she encounters, especially Hung the street vendor who “makes the best phô in the city” and Tu, the somewhat buttoned up tourist guide.

Phô, the iconic Vietnamese soup, is the real hero of the novel, as its contents and quality, as prepared by Hung, mirror the tragic history of Vietnam from colonial times through the brief period of hope in independence, the brutal collectivisation, the American war to the current liberalisation. These are narrated in flashbacks, by Hung as he tries to recall any details of Maggies’s father. None of the characters are developed beyond their role in reaching the denouement, which itself seems rather contrived. The language is spare (that’s a compliment) and the author has a good ear, can write some eloquent and moving passages but the characters are too symbolic to be really convincing.

The making of phô is a long and complicated affair of developing subtle flavours in the broth. Some recipes call for the addition of sugar. It is unfortunate that the author has ladled in a large dollop at the end.