REVIEW BY NAT K.
”Clouds began to ink out the stars, one by one.”
To say I’m overawed and overwhelmed is an understatement. This was David Mitchell’s first book??? How is that even possible? Incredible. Provocative. Smart.
On finishing this, I simply felt like my brain had exploded 💥 It just blew me away so much. It’s one of those books that reels you in, and keeps tightening the net, until you’re completely captivated and under its spell.
I spent so much time highlighting chapters, writing in margins, making links between events and chapters. Re-reading entire chapters. Taking it slowly. And enjoying every single moment. I was utterly and completely engrossed. I don’t think I “fussed” this much with books I studied for English in high school. But it begged to be done this way.
Nine cities, one major event. Each of the chapters are linked, looped together in cleverly intricate ways, sometimes subtle, others not so much. It simply blew me away.
I’m sure there are thousands of reviews, many of them magnificent. I wanted to keep my thoughts clear reading this, so avoided looking at any, and only read a few on completing the novel. This review will be snippets of my impressions, as the best possible review for this book is simply to read it and experience it for yourself.
”They wouldn’t know of the world’s existence if they hadn’t seen it on TV.”
A doomsday cult. Alpha quotients. A trouble young man who doesn’t fit in and is seeking truth. Justice? Denouncing his flesh family. Plotting a gas attack on a busy underground subway. Hatred for the world which rejected him. The backlash of consumerism and materialism. A husky dog on a beach. Seagulls with cruel faces.
”The Fellowship is not a ‘cult’. Cults enslave. The fellowship liberates.”
”Their ignorance makes me gasp! If only I could make these vermin understand!”
”…in Tokyo you have to make your place inside your head.”
A city that never stops. Where guidebooks are out of date before they’re even published. Enter the peace and serenity of a small jazz store. An oasis and escape from the noise and bustle of the outside world. Billie, Chet, Ella. Nineteen year old high school graduate Satoru works here. This is the place inside his head. He loves it. A mysterious phone call to the store nearly goes unanswered ”An unknown voice. Soft. Worried. The dog needs to be fed!”. Luckily it doesn’t. Satoru and Tomoyo’s paths cross. It’s kismet. It’s serendipity. It’s love.
I adored this chapter.
”You’ve done it again, Neal. Back from the brink. Nine lives? Nine hundred and ninety-fucking-nine more like.”
Account 1390931. The mysterious Andrei Gregorski. Six figure bonuses. A marriage unravelling. A child ghost. Adrenaline, adrenaline, adrenaline. This is Neal Brose’s life. Slowly unravelling before our eyes, page by page. The working hours of a financial lawyer, ending at 1.00am and starting again at 8.00am. Time time time. Prejudice, race, respect. How do the other half live? A burger eaten hastily in the middle of the night ”The kid and his girl came in He ordered a burger and cola. She had a vanilla shake…They just held hands over the table” before returning to the office. Anxiously looking at his Rolex, over and over. What is time? Time is running out. What is life? ”I looked at my Rolex: a quarter past midnight. What life is this?” What life indeed. A pressure cooker waiting to burst.
" 'He’s not begging for money.'
'What’s he begging for?'
'He’s begging for time.'
'Why does he do that?'
'He thinks you’re wasting yours, so you must have plenty to spare.' ”
This chapter shook me to my core. It hauntedme.
”There are things I will never understand.”
Feudal systems and warlords being replaced by Communism. One regime ousting the other. The ill treatment of women. The beauty of a person with lack of world knowledge, instead having depth of knowledge of self and nature. Strength of character. Belief in self. Devout. Surviving and being a survivor. Violation of people and living things. Cultural revolution. Decrying religion. Murder of monks. Carnage. Cruelty. The Red Book. Swings and roundabouts. The “Magic Tree”. The hypocrisy of politics. Tradition. Change of seasons and time. The sun will shine again.
”Always, it is the poor people who pay. And always, it is the poor people’s women who pay the most.”
”I have never discovered whether others of my kind exist.”
Noncorpum, noncorpa, noncorpi. A mysterious entity. A parasite? “It”. Something that appeared in Utopia Avenue which I recognized straight away, and was excited to do so. But how could this appear in a first novel, only to appear seven books later? Did he plan it this way? Did it grow organically? I’ve no idea. But in Ulan Bator, we’re introduced to this entity. Along with a chilling character by the name of Suhbataar who is cruelty personified, and pops up again. Fable and folklore. The story of three animals pondering the fate of the world. Shamans. Transmigration. Reincarnation. Leave your disbelief at the door.
”Everything is about wanting. Everything. Things happen because of people wanting. Watch closely and you’ll see what I mean.”
The Art world. The Hermitage. People scrabbling to view the masters. But how do they know if they’re seeing the real thing? Fraud and heists. Greed. Jealousy. The irony of communism and party politick. Apparatchiks. Adam & Eve. The serpent. Temptation. Bite the apple. Go on. You know you want to. Two alpha females. Which will win? What would you do for love? Double crossing. Triple crossing. Dreams built and dreams shattered. Don’t look back. Caught in a web. Five gold bullets. Who has the real Delacroix?
”Petersburg is built of sob stories, pile-driven down into the mud.”
”A city is a sea that you lose things in. You only find things that other people have lost.”
An ode to a city. ”London’s middle-aged and male, respectably married but secretly gay.”A really chirpy, upbeat chapter. Marco is our narrator. He is a ghostwriter! Meeting your doppelgänger and faulty memory. This chapter provided much light relief from the angst and pain of earlier ones. Plenty of philosophising as we wonder the city street with him. Each borough has a distinctly different vibe. Chance is mentioned often. ”…the blind barman Chance.” I couldn’t help but be reminded of Tennessee Williams and his character Chance in Sweet Bird of Youth. Opportunities down to blind luck, and… chance. Of where you’re born. To whom. Which path you may or may not take. It’s all…chance. As chance would have it, Marco saves a woman in an anorak from being run over by a taxi (yes, she is an important character). The crash of a law firm. The fallout. The scene where Marco hides in a broom cupboard in the casino when the heat gets too hot, is a scene straight out of a Guy Ritchie movie. Love rules.
Extra points for Joe Orton getting a mention. And ”Andy Warhol accents.” Innit.
”I guess I’m not much of anything these days apart, from older. A part-time Buddhist maybe.”
”If God can’t dig the spirituality of Procol Harum, that His loss.”
The beauty and tranquility of a small island off the Irish coast, versus quantum physics and the potential for total annihilation via AI. The Black Book. A goat named Feynman. Loyalty You cannot leave the project. Nobody leaves the project. The want for the serenity of life on the island, with magnificent sunsets. The inability to have it. Again, love.
”Wanna hear how they’re gonna spread the virus over the world, Bat?”
Midnight to dawn on Night Train FM, with the aptly named named Bat (Bartholomew) Segundo. A seriously zippy chapter. Another one with a great jazz vibe. Snappy dialogue. Lots of bite. A wise guy late night show radio host. And really out there late night callers. ”…nighshifting, taxi-driving,all-night dinering, security guarding, eleven-sevening creatures of the night.” Including one by the name of “Zookeeper”. Who is s/he? And why does s/he keep calling? For a while there I thought it was God. Or a God. ”I cannot fabulate”. The concern for the world. “My Zoo”. Watching events from afar. The end of the world. I have to admit the opening line to this chapter was Orwellian and prescient. It sent a little shiver down my spine. Don’t wink or you’ll miss a few cheeky coincidences. Or are they?
” ‘This is getting very ugly.’
‘Uglier things are considered beautiful.’ ”
” "Who was blowing on the nape of my neck?"
Reverting to a line in the opening chapter. The gas attack is in progress. Or is it? Chaos and confusion. The ending is open to your interpretation.
My understanding is that Mitchell has built a “multiverse” (a “Mitchellverse”?) where many characters re-appear in future books, as do references to events in earlier books. I got an inkling of that reading this. That the stage was being set for something down the track. In fact, there are a few characters that I already know will appear in later books, as I’ve read two of them previously. It’s a clever concept, and probably not one that most writers would be capable of pulling off. But Mitchell does, seamlessly, and runs away with it beautifully.
I felt many (Haruki) Murakami vibes reading this As I mentioned to Neale, at certain junctures, if I’d not know what I was reading - if the cover had been torn off - I would definitely have thought I was reading a Murakami novel. And I mean this as the greatest compliment, as Murakami is one of my favourite writers. I adore him. This also has that out there, jazz, what’s going on, quirky vibe. It really added to the enjoyment of it for me. It was on my wavelength (or I was on its).
(Apart from which, Murakami has a non-fiction book titled Underground which is about the sarin gas attacks in Tokyo…).
Alternating between some really heavy chapters, with difficult subject matter, to moments of absolute comedy is sheer genius. The threads between the stories is sheer genius. That such a big picture story can encompass so much that is good and bad in the world, is sheer genius. The magnitude of all that it achieves to convey, from the lives in a small country that most people haven’t heard of, to glittering, bustling metropolises, is sheer genius. The pulse that is life. The randomness of life. The whole “butterfly effect” theory, and how interlinked we strangers are. Cause and effect.
It’s a curious thing, I read an interview by Mitchell with The Irish Times (dated around 2018?), where he says something along the lines of being embarrassed to read his earliest works. At finding them (and I’m ad libbing here), cringeworthy. If only he could see what I see. And countless other readers. It’s quite simply something beyond words to have this reading experience.
”The dog needs to be fed.”
(pink soup! pink soup!)
David Mitchell was born in Southport, Merseyside, in England, raised in Malvern, Worcestershire, and educated at the University of Kent, studying for a degree in English and American Literature followed by an M.A. in Comparative Literature. He lived for a year in Sicily, then moved to Hiroshima, Japan, where he taught English to technical students for eight years, before returning to England. After another stint in Japan, he currently lives in Ireland with his wife Keiko and their two children.
NAT K's RATING