At the end of life, does a writer’s every word flash before his or her eyes?
One might be forgiven for wondering just that on reaching the last page of Mitchell’s (Cloud Atlas, 2004, etc.) delicious ghost story—which is more than just a ghost story, it being Mitchell’s world in which readers are merely living, and more than delicious, too. When we meet sensitive, confused 13-year-old Nathan, a target painted on him for every schoolyard bully and hauled from place to place by a Valium-popping, near-berserk, newly divorced mum, he’s fretting about having to dress up for a fancy do: “If Gaz Ingram or anyone in his gang sees me in this bow-tie,” he mopes, “I’ll find a poo in my locker, guaranteed.” Perhaps better a poo than what awaits Nathan at Slade House, where possibly malevolent, certainly scary forces await in the form of a brother and sister who, as said brother assures us, “are a different species….We pass ourselves off as normal, or anything we want to be.” Ghosts or monsters or possibly aliens or even vampires, Jonah and Norah Grayer and their eldritch doings are not the most interesting part of this book. The more compelling aspect, for Mitchell fans, is to watch him shape-shift and narrator-shift across the body of his work, beginning with circumstances reminiscent of Black Swan Green and ending with bursts of language befitting Cloud Atlas (“This system o’ the Grayers, it won’t run off the mains. It runs off o’ psychovoltage. The psychovoltage of Engifteds”). There are even a few characters who drift in from other books, including Marinus from The Bone Clocks, who turns out to be a nervous Nellie in the face of the banjax suckers….
Though there’s something of an inside joke happening on every page, Mitchell serves up a story that wouldn’t be out of place alongside The Turn of the Screw. Ingenious, scary, and downright weird.