Slade House by David Mitchell

Hardcover, 260 pages
Published October 27th 2015 by Random House (first published October 20th 2015)

“To follow [the] trail of breadcrumbs you have to blindfold your own sanity…”

Wow, what a ride! David Mitchell’s Slade House came running round the bend, no pun intended (well, maybe just a little for those who have read it), at full steam ahead with all of the mechanical makings and suspenseful trappings of a haunting psychological thrill ride. It had a rhythmic flow that you could fall into, but beware. That trap has thorns. And fangs.

“…but as I watch, the running-boy shape gets fuzzier and becomes a growling darkness with darker eyes, eyes that know me, and fangs that’ll finish what they started and it’s pounding after me in sickening slow motion, big as a cantering horse and I’d scream if I could but I can’t my chest’s full of molten panic it’s choking me choking…if I fall it’ll have me, and I’ve only got moments left and I stumble up the steps and grip the doorknob turn please turn it’s stuck no no no…it’s ridged does it turn yes no yes no twist pull push pull turn twist I’m falling forwards…”

Slade House is the tale of a mystical house in London, that can only be found if you know just where—and when—to look: just a skip from the ratty Fox and Hounds pub, down the alley too dark and narrow for “a properly fat person…[to] get past someone coming the other way.” There you’ll find a little iron door, so small you’d have to stoop to go through it, embedded in the side of the wall. You’ll wonder how you missed it when you first walked by. Was it there before? Are you imagining it now? Inside you’ll find a paradise to your liking: a beautiful woman, the career opportunity of a lifetime, a raging kegger, whatever you fancy. But once inside, there’s no turning back because, as we all know, the house always wins.

The format worked well for this one, using a series of vignettes, all nine years apart, to weave together the haunting mystery of Slade House and the experiences of those who dared to enter those walls—all linked soul-to-soul if not hand-in-hand. Their experiences in Slade House overlap in the most disconcerting and sinister of ways. Each character is eventually and inevitably interlaced into the experiences of the other vignettes, and subtle sequences tie it all together with an eerie thread of déja vu like a finger down the spine of your back.

Mitchell’s Slade House was Hill House meets The Skeleton Key, if you’ve ever seen that movie. An enchanted experience woven by a true magician, because now you see it; now you don’t. It was absolutely cinematic, and once the novel had you in its clutches, it was quite the thrill ride, building suspense in a way that made you grasp the pages and say, “No, that is not happening—oh, my God, is that about to happen!” (Well, it did for me, anyways. ;)) The premise of this novel was divine and the execution of it near-perfect.

However—oh yes, I’ve got to hit it with the “however—” I couldn’t give this one 5 stars.

Of course, you’re asking, “Why’d you steal Slade’s star?” And the answer, simply put, is cop-out. I haven’t seen cop-out revelations like that since middle-school writing, at least, I’m sorry to say. The short explanatory monologues spoiled it for me a little, pulling me out of this world of ghostly mystique and foreboding just to dowse me in annoyance before inserting me back into the plot. I loathe when pro/antagonists practically leap out of character to deliver stilted, unrealistic dialogues amongst themselves, explaining things (to the reader) that they, themselves, would already know! Case in point, under what circumstance would it ever be okay to turn to your sister and say:

“For fifty-four years, our souls have wandered that big wide world out there, possessing whatever bodies we want, living whatever lives we wish, while our fellow birth-Victorians are all dead or dying out…”?

Umm, no. Never! Never ever! Creative Writing 101—hell, Reader 101! That totally killed the mood of mounting suspense for me, and I was definitely peeved to find that I could expect this at the end of every. single. vignette. Then there were the annoying explanations that the narrator gave for why protagonists did what they did, such as, “Vodafone must have begun upgrading their network after Avril’s texts arrived” (to explain why a call didn’t go through at an eerie time, ect.) I’m basically positive that that’s why the page count is so low on this one—cop-out wrap-ups that didn’t require the time or word count to really flesh out these seemingly minor makings of the novel that can never go forgotten about, that can never be faked or rushed.

So, think of Slade House as a thrill ride with bumpy turns. If those had been smoothed at the edges and fleshed out with the same brilliant strokes of writing as the kaleidoscope of fun-house horrors—the effortless illustration of Slade House and all of its haunting hallways and staircases, rose gardens and phantom occurrences—this definitely would have earned back its stolen star. Still, I’d definitely recommend this read for anyone who dares to stoop through that doorway and enter Slade House. The taste of the pros is definitely worth eating the cons—you know, like a good bag of popcorn or potato chips. But reader beware: this book has bite. 4 stars. ****

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

*I received an advance-read copy of this novel from the publisher, Doubleday, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Hardcover, 320 pages
Expected publication: September 13th 2016 by Doubleday

I was really looking forward to this read! I had an interesting relationship with The Intuitionist, having read it in college and not quite grasped it then came back to it later and enjoyed it more. I love everything that Colson Whitehead is about (and I hope to read Zone One soon), but this particular foray into his work turned out to be a little less than a love affair for me.

The Underground Railroad starts on the Randall plantation in Georgia around 1812. This plantation is an amalgamation of every horror and tragedy you’ve ever heard of about slavery. Slaves are beaten and raped for amusement, even on display for the entertainment of guests sipping lemonade; attempts at fleeing from bondage or bucking the system are (often arbitrarily) met with public displays of execution, from being strung up and castrated to a good ole-fashioned tarring and feathering. Life on the plantation is as rough for women—who are used as breeders for more slaves, hence more money, and are constantly at the mercy of male appetites, both from those in the ivory tower and those in the fields—as it is for the laboring men. In the midst of it all, Cora, a stray who’s gained a bit of a scarlet letter because her mother fled the plantation and left her behind years back, starts her long journey to freedom one quiet night with nothing but a sack of unripe turnips, two companions and the North Star as their guide. But the untold horrors that she will face ahead of her on this trek will sometimes rival those that she left behind. With a bounty on her head and dreams of education and freedom beckoning her forward, she will stop through a slew of Southern states—all with their own systems of Southern justice and oppression—and find herself on Whitehead’s re-envisaged Underground Railroad.

Within these pages, you’ll embark on a re-imagined historical truth that could only be a creation of Colson Whitehead. Here, the Underground Railroad is—get this—an actual train (or a single, rickety locomotive, but you get the point), complete with a conductor. At times that term is more allegorical than actual, but even the conductors have their own pasts that, at times, ensnare Cora in their trap-like grasp. Human sterilization to control the growth of the Negro population (which, in some states, “problematically” rivals the numbers of the white population), blackface, and the Tuskegee Project are all touched on here, are all experienced by our heroine in some periphery of her journey.

Those are the goodie takeaways.

Now for my qualms. This novel would’ve been better served being written in first person, for Cora’s chapters at the very least. This is a harrowing journey, a terrifying trek into the unknown for a young woman who has never been outside of the confines of the Randall Plantation for her entire life. She’s never worked for her own wages, never bought her own new dress, never even been to see a doctor. We want to see, touch and taste every moment of what she feels. We want to quiver when she quivers and scream when she hurts. We want to experience these truths re-imagined for ourselves, because this is a remarkable journey set in a harrowing past that our country would rather keep hushed and obscured. To truly break us out of this—to truly immerse us in this and better make the point that he sought to make—we should’ve been squarely in Cora’s shoes, not watching her from above in a slightly removed, vaguely clinical 3rd person.

While Whitehead’s intellectualism serves his plots well, it doesn’t do the greatest wonders for soulful and immersive execution. Perhaps that comes down to being a matter of personal preference. I found his writing style, as was the case in his The Intuitionist as well, to be talented but, yes, just a tad by the way of clinician. And finesse—oh, finesse, thou art an allusive thing! Honestly, there wasn’t a lot of it here, and by that I mean that this was quite the bull-ride read: jerky and rough. I had to re-read several passages, because segues from one event to the next were often non-existent. Suddenly, you were in a saloon, or in the middle of an attack by rogue outlaws, then learning letters in a schoolhouse. Literally, a person could go from alive to dead in a single, four-sentence paragraph! Um, what?? (Shaking head vigorously.) What just happened now?

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Also, I could’ve done without the backstory chapters of the minor characters. Every single one of those “let-me-elaborate-on-this-(minor)-character’s-past-life” chapters could’ve been gutted from this manuscript—all except for one. And that one you’ll know when you read it.

Still, Colson Whitehead managed to touch on the justifications and absolutions that the antebellum South descriptionwhispered to themselves at night to justify their actions, biblical references that laid the way for Manifest Destiny and all the other gluttonous rationalizations that makes slavery possible, in any land, in any era. And for that, I applauded him.

The story itself was great—a truly epic adventure—but the pace at which it jerked, sometimes lullingly slow and others at whiplash-inducing speeds, turned me off. And, I have to say, any novel where I feel even the slightest urge to skim and skip ahead can never get 4 stars from me. But his work is definitely unique in its own right, and for that I would absolutely recommend this novel to anyone who has read the blurb and marked it as to-read, to anyone who’s already familiar with Whitehead’s talents and appreciated them, and for those who have yet to become familiar with them. I have a deep respect for this author; the style just didn’t work for me the way I’d hoped this time, and for that I award 3.5 stars ***

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

 

Hardcover, 192 pages
Published February 2nd 2016 by Hogarth (first published October 2007)*

Though the ostensible reason for her not wanting Yeong-hye to be discharged, the reason that she gave the doctor, was this worry about a possible relapse, now she was able to admit to herself what had really been going on. She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there…”

 

Wow, what can I say about this one except “wow.”

The Vegetarian by Han Kang was everything that we love about Korean and Japanese literature and art—and that’s exactly what this work was: art. Here you will find what we have come to know, to love and to expect from authors in this genre who write in this vein: the vibrancy, the subtle magical realism, the commanding usage of words and the elusive, sinister nature that is unique to these works—all embedded within an established culture of history and mores that has survived and developed for millennia longer than most others.

        The Vegetarian read with a delicious ominousness that was as subtle as a shadow, like a breath at your neck. It was that subtly that made the read so taunt and disquieting, and there was a strange, magical realism to it that almost read like Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (no shock there, as they both seem to have been influenced by Kafka). As a work of short literary form (it’s under 200 pages), it was unusual, among other reasons, in that it was told from three different perspectives with almost no perspective from the novel’s subject, Yeong-hye. We see how her vegetarianism, which later leads into a kind of manic catatonia, affects first her callous and at times sexually abusive husband, then her brother-in-law who becomes completely enthralled with her sexually because of her Mongolian mark, and her sister who is the last one standing when Yeong-hye’s psyche begins to peel away.

In addition to the serious topics that The Vegetarian brushed up against: the effect of cultural mores on women, body image, conformism, familial ties and abuse, and, of course, mental illness that ultimately culminated in a way that I could never reveal without spoiling it for you—this was also a tale of family dysfunction. It was a tale of familial ties that were severed painfully, of violent confrontations and realizations, of physical and emotional starvation, and a parable about the woman, the vegetarian, at the center of it all.

          The Vegetarian was sensual, and it meandered toward its climax in a way that was both unsettling and prophetic. It was allegory elevated to the highest level of art, raised to the level of surrealism. The change in tenses and POVs worked well. And even this technique, this simple process of sentence-writing that we learn in grade school, was elevated: the tenses of sentences shifted noticeably, particularly the closer that it came to dénouement, a jolting but brilliant allusion to this descent into mental illness and personal violence, which added to the mystical element of this novel.

Han Kang produced a work, his first to be seen here in the U.S., that was so unhinged, so mystifying, that at times it would slither from your grasp. I had to sit and reflect on several of the passages for a few minutes—not because they were ill-written, but because they were both profound and often just outside of my immediate mental grasp, and that was a wonderful thing. It was an effect that I look for in modern-day writing—that disquietingly ungraspable moment.

“Yeong-hye’s voice, which came to her while she was suspended in that halfway state between sleep and wakefulness, was low and warm at first, then innocent like that of a young child, but the last part was mangled, a distorted animal sound. Her eyes snapped open in fright, and she was stung by a waking hatred the likes of which she’d never felt before, before being thrown back into sleep. This time she was standing in from of the bathroom mirror. In the reflection, blood was trickling from her left eye. She quickly reached up to wipe the blood away, but somehow her reflection in the mirror didn’t move an inch, only stood there, blood running from a staring eye.”

The Vegetarian was unconventional. It broke away from the molds that we find ourselves encumbered in with typical fiction. Here you will not find the typical “rising action, climax, falling action” formula that we’ve become so accustomed to, that we’ve grown to expect and to lean into, though we know how it’ll all end in the end. Honestly, this read left me a little speechless, so you’ll have to excuse the less-than-customary word count here. Definitely, take that as a compliment in the highest sense. 5 stars. *****

 

*The cover used here is not the cover that was released in the U.S., but it is one of the most BEAUTIFUL examples of cover art that I have ever seen, AND it more accurately portrays some of the themes in this novel (much better than the U.S.-released cover art).