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)