Slade House, by David Mitchell

Well, he didn’t—revert to the world of reality in this 2015 novel. Except, he did, but only during the wonderful opening pages, as he introduces us to thirteen-year-old Nathan Bishop, who is accompanying his mother Norah to Slade House, where she has been invited by Lady Norah Grayer to attend a musical soiree, and where she also hopes that she will be invited to perform. What we encounter is a beautiful portrait of a curious boy, his down-to-earth relationship with his parents, and his precocious reaction to the world he encounters.

But Slade House, which is entered down a dark alley, where a small hidden door opens to reveal a fancy garden in front of an impressive mansion, is not what it appears to be. It is not the site of a simple musical soiree. Not when the garden begins to disappear, and not when Nathan discovers a portrait of himself that shows him in his exact current clothing. And certainly not when Lady Norah Grayer becomes much younger, and Jonah Grayer, formerly a teenager who greeted him in the garden, is suddenly old enough to be a twin of Lady Norah. Whereupon, Nathan looks into a candle flame, and feels himself disappearing, indeed being swallowed up.

This is the first episode in what will become a series of stories about immortality, about certain family members desperate to achieve it, and about others who are their unsuspecting victims. In a way, it is a horror story; but the horror is not quite palpable, because it belongs more to a world of fantasy than to the real world around us. What is driving this desire for immortality is also not clear. It does hark back to the previous novel, The Bone Clocks, however, a work in which Mitchell also relates a series of separate stories. Indeed, the author uses this technique in many of his novels, especially in his well-known Cloud Atlas.

In this novel, the author offers four stories of victimhood, and these stories happen to repeat themselves every nine years. The second episode occurs when Inspector Gordon Edmonds calls at Slade House to follow up on the disappearance of the Bishops, mother and son. The police have been approached by a certain Fred Pink, who was hit by a cab and was sent into a coma for nine years, but who now remembers that he had met Nathan Bishop and his mother just before their disappearance. And so the policeman is asked by his superiors to call at Slade House to see if he can learn more about the pair’s visit to the mansion and their disappearance. There, he meets its new owner, Chloe Chetwynd, a mysterious woman who seduces him, and then somehow turns into Nora Grayer.

Whereupon, nine years later, a student group calling itself the Paranormal Society, investigates Slade House and the disappearances of Nathan, his mother, and the policeman. We follow this group through Sally Timms, who develops a crush on fellow student Todd but then loses him and searches for him through room after room, rooms that also keep changing. Until Todd reveals himself as Jonah Grayer, and Sally endures the same fate as the boy and the policeman.

After three such scenes, we encounter Sally’s sister, Freya. She is a journalist and seeks out Fred Pink in order to learn the fate of her sister and her paranormal friends. Fred has done considerable research because he also lost his nephew with the paranormal group. From Grayer family memoirs, Fred has learned the history of Slade House and its family. And why so many visitors to that house have disappeared. His long conversation with Freya explains the origin of the immortals, as well as the events of the three early sections—and reads much like the extended dénouement of a complicated mystery. But it contains little drama until a final moment of action, when Fred turns into Johan Grayer, argues with his sister, and then is attacked.

An interesting aspect, by the way, but really a sidelight, is the constant debate between Norah and Jonah Grayer as they confront each of their victims. They are working together, but each is also making his decisions from a different perspective. Like many a brother and sister, they are comfortable at teasing one another, even as carping at each other also reflects a certain rivalry.

In the final section, a disguised Norah Grayer hosts a psychiatrist, Dr. Marinus, to bring the story of Slade House and the Grayer twins to an end. It is a satisfying conclusion in one sense, for the physical collapse of Slade House is highly dramatic. But there is no revelation to reward the reader for pursuing this mysterious, complicated, and repetitive story. The fantasy Slade House simply collapses out of a lack of human energy. Yes, with a promise that the story will continue one day, but this is the familiar non-ending that many a novelist relies on to continue the story in the reader’s mind. One thus comes away with the sense that it is the journey that mattered to the author, not the final explanation with its tacked-on future.

What Mitchell does accomplish here is not, for me, the horror he creates as these arbitrary victims gradually confront their fate worse than death. Rather it is, as he says, “the idea that you can no longer trust your mind…[which is] about the most frightening thing there is.” This occurs here when the interior of Slade House keeps changing, even disappearing, on its own, and these characters have no frame of reference for what is happening.

But the apparent resolution to these characters’ fates, their sudden absence, and the implication that there is no life after death, is not felt by the reader. Perhaps because the drama itself depends more on those who seek to be immortal than on those whose fate is decided.

Considering the blend of the real world and the world of fantasy, the review in The Independent of the U.K. sums up the book author Mitchell surely envisioned: “Against the cursed privilege of the immortals, [he] helps us love the time that dooms us.” That is, with the inevitability of death.

But he has not achieved this for me, because the finale is driven more by the immortals than by the supposed fate of their doomed victims. And so I continue to be reluctant to explore more of this author’s work. Yes, it is provocative; but it fails still again to be satisfying. (June, 2019)

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Testimony, by Scott Turow

The premise of this 2017 novel is that four hundred Roma, gypsies, were reported buried alive in a cave after a deliberate man-made landslide trapped them inside. This is in Bosnia in 2004. Did such a massacre truly happen? If it did, who was responsible? Was it the Serbian militia? Was it Bosnian Muslims? Was it local gangsters? None of them liked the Roma.

There are also rumors that the American army was responsible. That they killed the gypsies in revenge because those same gypsies had stolen American guns and sold them to the Bosnian Serb leader, Laja Kajevic. And that this brutal man, patterned after the real Radovan Karadzic, had ambushed the Americans with those guns when they tried to capture him, resulting in four dead American soldiers and eight wounded.

The complicated politics of the former Yugoslavia, where Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians killed one another during the 1990s, has drawn Kindle County prosecutor Bill ten Boom to Europe two decades later. His move is in response to a mid-life crisis produced by an unfulfilling career back home and a lackluster marriage. And since he is of Dutch ancestry, he has accepted an assignment as a lawyer at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The American lawyer knows that a gypsy, Ferko Rincic, has brought a report of the gypsy massacre to the Court, and that his assignment will be to verify that story. All of which also represents a major switch from Turow’s own previous environment for his legal thrillers, Kindle County in the American Midwest. And not only does his hero know no one at the international court, he must also operate within an entirely new legal system.

The result is a fast moving legal thriller in which the ground rules keep changing as Boom and the Belgian Goos, his official investigator, uncover new information. The new data, however, seems either to contradict previous information or to be less reliable. This begins with the details of Ferko’s original report, but then continues as Boom succumbs to the sexual favors of Esma Czarni, Ferko’s lawyer, who is a British-educated beauty who claims a gypsy heritage. Still further complications are introduced by a transgendered woman, Attila, a former American army sergeant who now has contacts with both the American military and the Bosnian militia as a local provider of back-up services.

The search for the truth of what happened to the gypsies in that cave a decade earlier is a long and complicated one. There are thrilling moments, such as when Boom has his neck chained by unknown captors to the neck of his official investigator at the top of a Bosnian water tower, where the wrong move by either one will send them toppling to their death. And there are some emotionally moving moments as well, such as when Boom speculates on the faithfulness of the women in his life. But even more moving is when he learns that his true ancestry is not Dutch, and that his parents brought him to the America he loves in order to avoid charges of betrayal.

Indeed, the loyalties and the treacheries of the characters Boom meets in his new job are difficult to follow in a part of the world where the Bosnians, the gypsies, the U.S. Army, the Serbian militia, the free-lance provider, and the international court are often working at cross-purposes. What is interesting, however, is that many of these adversaries do come to appreciate and respect one another, even as they plot against each other. This recognition occurs, even though the slow revelation of what really happened in that cave produces long and complicated exchanges that are deliberately misleading. Which leads to more long conversations being sought from more reliable sources. Or, are they? Obviously, the testimony of the title refers to these conflicting conversations, even though many of them are not official proceedings in a courtroom.

Yet, despite these long and complicated exchanges of information, the overall experience this work offers is a rewarding one. First, both the story and the setting are different from what one usually encounters in legal thrillers. And this unusual Bosnian setting is convincingly real. It obviously required lengthy on-site research by the author, which has paid off.

Second, the novel is rewarding because Boom, the hero, has interesting personal problems that are interwoven into the story. How much is he capable of love, he asks himself. And, later, he speculates how can he fulfill his legal obligations to the Court, and yet at the same time make decisions that reflect the American tradition of fairness. Moreover, because he has come to respect a few of these adversaries, he recognizes that some have done bad things for good reasons, while others have done good things which were illegal.

In sum, this is a long and complicated story that moves fast early on, and then more slowly as Boom first gets involved with certain women, and then encounters a more nuanced situation when closing in on the truth about what happened to the gypsies. At the end, he seems to have found that truth, and yet is not completely happy with what he has learned.

What Turow has done here is taken moments of actual history, like an international court seeking to bring justice to the former Yugoslavia, like the historical cruelty among former Yugoslav neighbors, like the brutality of an actual Bosnian leader, like NATO troops rounding up weapons as part of enforcing the peace agreement, like a mysterious movement of seized arms from Bosnia to Iraq, and like a disgraced American general intent on saving his reputation. No wonder weaving them together turns out to be so complex.

Ben Macintyre aptly sums up this novel in his New York Times review. “This is at once a thriller, a story of middle-aged angst, an exposition of international law and an exploration of an intensely serious and a very nasty episode in recent history. Like the international court’s attempts to ring retrospective justice to Bosnia, it is imperfect and occasionally confusing, but also admirable and important.”

Just as his hero Boom sought a change of scenery and a change of venue, one wonders where Scott Turow will set his next novel. Will he return to Kindle County? Or will he explore the world further, intrigued by how the law is practiced under other cultures? (June, 2019)

Prayers for Rain, by Dennis Lehane

This 1999 private eye novel, featuring Patrikck Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, is the last mystery Lehane wrote before he produced Mystic River, a novel which announced his graduation into more literary work. And this novel shows he was ready to do just that.

From the opening pages, one senses an author in full control of his characters, as they roam from the streets of Boston to the South Shore, plus encounter the unexpected developments that introduce hidden deceit and moral complexity.

Meanwhile, complementing the action is colorful badinage between Kenzie and Gennaro that emphasizes their renewed relationship, as well as Kenzie’s frequent insights. Such as the “slightly confused, slightly guilty” look of dogs.” Or: “I could see her in a nursing home 40 years form now, alone, spending her days lost in the bitter smoke of her memories.” Or: she “uncrossed her legs and tucked them to the side in that effortless way that all women can and no man is remotely capable of.” All of which evokes a literary sensibility hovering just beyond the action-filled plot.

The story begins when an innocent girl, Karen Nichols, asks for protection against a would-be rapist. Kenzie scares the villain off, then learns a few months later—after Karen tries to get in touch with him and he ignores her—that she has committed suicide. It makes no sense to him that such a girl would do so, and a sense of guilt drives him to learn about the wealthy family she belonged to. It is headed by Christopher and Carrie Dawe, who raised a son Wesley and daughters Karen and Naomi. It is a patrician family, a mixed up family, a family filled with resentment. And a family vulnerable to blackmail and violence.

Soon, Kenzie figures out the cruelty and corruption the family hides, as well as its history of destroyed innocence. He also uncovers the confusing relationships between these family members and scheming interlopers who seek the Dawe forturne. Which leads to Kenzie finding himself in a can-and-mouse game with an unknown villain. This turns out to be Scott Pearse, whose evil strategy is to manipulate his victims’ minds until they do whatever he suggests, even commit suicide. The suspense builds when the sadistic Pearse tries this strategy on Kenzie himself, and appears to be continually one step ahead of the private detective’s efforts to protect both the Dawe’s fortune and its members from further bloodshed.

Fortunately, Kenzie has the help of Gennaro, his side-kick and girl friend, as well as that of Bubba Rogowski, an ex-soldier who exudes brawn over brain and is a typical muscleman for private eyes like Kenzie. Bubba leads their final escapade in the cranberry bogs of Plymouth, resulting in a bloody finale in which life is cheap but the good guys come out on top.

However, I found one fault with this mystery, which occurs when Lehane goes for broke in his ending. He tries to top his initial solution to this family mystery with a second solution that turns the first solution upside down. And this becomes too much for me. Such surprises in other Lehane novels do work, but this time he tries too hard. He doesn’t need the extra twist that suggests that final justice is still to be wrought.

Note also that the meaning of the title I do find to be elusive. Rain is water, which is a symbol of rebirth. Which the Dawes seek in their own way. Heavy rain can also call for courage and peace of mind in order to survive. Which is what Kenzie seeks when faced with the manipulative villain. And so I wonder if Lehane does not intend the title to refer to the villainous Pease and his desire to control others, a control that leads to family disintegration. For there exists a song of disintegration by the band, The Cure, which concludes:

“You fracture me, your hands on me, a touch
So plain so stale it kills
You strangle me, entangle me
In hopelessness and prayers for rain
Prayers for rain
Prayers for rain
Prayers for rain.”

Finally, I read this novel to catch up on Lehane’s complete work. And it was worth the effort, particularly when, despite extended violence, it suggests the literary novelist to come. (June, 2019)