My first experience of David Mitchell’s work was the acclaimed Cloud Atlas. My husband had thoroughly enjoyed it and I began with high hopes. Sadly it just didn’t resonate with me. I found the different stories too short, I couldn’t connect with the characters and I failed to grasp the thread going through them all. I was incredibly disappointed. Despite my husband’s insistence that Mitchell was a fantastic writer I pretty much swore off him the day I read the last page of Cloud Atlas. However, earlier this year we went to an event at the Southbank to see Kazuo Ishiguro and David Mitchell in conversation. The event was fantastic, you can read about it in my post, “Among Giants and Ghosts: Kazuo Ishiguro and David Mitchell in conversation” . Having seen how charismatic and witty Mitchell was it made me reconsider my stance on his books and I decided to go back to the beginning and his first novel Ghostwritten.
Ghostwritten is one book with 9 stories, each with a different set of characters and plots. Set across Japan, Hong Kong, China, Mongolia, Russia, England, Ireland and America each story has a small thread which splinters into the next. A millenarianist doomsday cult terrorist hiding out after an attack in Tokyo connects with a mini love story in a Japanese record shop; the couple brush the life of a financial lawyer in Hong Kong. An affair with his cleaning lady sees a chain reaction which takes us to an old lady on a Holy Mountain in China. A disembodied spirit moves around people in Mongolia, including that of a Mongolian KGB agent who is involved in a Russian art heist. In London a ghostwritter has a one night stand with the widower of a Hong Kong financial lawyer and saves the life of a woman about to be hit by a taxi. With her life intact the woman continues a long journey back home to a small island in Ireland to implement a plan to make her physicist research an aid of peace rather than weapon of war. Her work leads to the creation of artificial intelligence called Zookeeper which breaks free from its creators and makes contact with a late night call-in radio show seeking guidance. Mitchell concludes his literary journey back on the Tokyo underground with his first character Quasar, in a panic to get off the train before the sarin is released strands from the other stories appear as hallucinations. He and we are left pondering what is real.
Mitchell is a novelist with a vision, whether you enjoy them or not his mapping of stories and characters is a true skill and art. References to plots and characters appear not just in stories in this book but some of them continue in his subsequent work. Describing him as an artist would not be a dis-service. Mitchell paints vivid and emotion filled pictures with his words, he can be tender, compassionate and funny. What I think stands out the most in this book is his ability to embody and portray so eloquently the different genders, generations and cultures. Written whilst he was living in Japan you can see how he could create such convincing Japanese characters, but his little Chinese woman, his Mongolian villagers and his Russian femme fatale have as much depth and realism.
I have to say I did enjoy this book. I don’t think I’m ever going to be Mitchells greatest fan and it didn’t leave me wanting to rush out and buy another of his books but I did feel like I understood this book and felt that I invested in the characters and their tales. It’s odd how two books following the same format can read so differently. There are probably a number of reasons why I appreciated in this book what I disliked in Cloud Atlas. Maybe the stories are just longer, giving me more time to understand the characters; maybe it is just that the characters are more easily relatable; or maybe it’s me, maybe I was more open to his style having seen him talk about his work, or was just in a better headspace.