David Mitchell: Ghostwritten – Review

‘The act of memory is an act of ghostwriting’

I’ve just finished Ghostwritten and I have to say, wow, that was quite a journey.

This isn’t really a novel, it’s more of a series of interconnected short stories. What David Mitchell has managed to do with Ghostwritten is explore the nature of chance and the role of meaning in each one of our lives. He’s managed to make us question the butterfly effect that influences every aspect of our day to day existence: how are we all connected to each other? What are the consequences of our actions? What is the fundamental nature of our humanity? Isolation or connection? As the blurb on the back cover on my edition states, this is a ‘novel of love, metaphysics, history, politics and ghosts … an unforgettable vision of our common humanity’ – what more could you ask for?

Well, even though I definitely enjoyed this book, one of the issues I had was the inconsistency of Mitchell’s prose. Some passages were smooth, silky and elegant, some were rigid, clunky, and frankly just seemed a little try hard (I’m thinking specifically here about the Margarita Latunsky character who I just found somewhat annoying – I don’t think Mitchell’s talents as a writer are expressed well writing under the guise of a narcissistic Russian woman). There were quite a few points where I literally stopped reading and went back over a word or line thinking I’d read it wrong, but no there was just a really awkward choice of wording, It’s like he couldn’t quite get into some of his characters (maybe a the pitfall of  being overly ambitious in your first novel). I understand that Mitchell was trying to incorporate different styles of writing into each different chapter/perspective but some of them were just not consistent enough, which to me made some of the characters seem less believable, and even very slightly boring at times.

Saying that, on the whole this was really a pretty minor issue in an otherwise very impressive book. The imagination and inventiveness of some of the characters (and how they interlink) was where this book really shone. I loved the idea behind the Mongolia chapter (which I can’t really go into without spoilers) and how that concept was subtly interwoven throughout the other stories. The Tokyo chapter was like something straight out of Murakami (in a good way): a thoughtful meditation on young love sprinkled with some vintage jazz references to boot – all that was missing was a few talking cats! And the book’s opener, following a member of a sinister Japanese cult, was thrilling and sometimes darkly funny. After finishing those first 30 pages you’re definitely left wondering what could possibly be in store for you in the pages that follow.

However, to me, although it wasn’t necessarily the most imaginative part of the book, I found one of the most heartfelt chapters was ‘London’. I think maybe it was because the writing here seemed to be the most honest, like it was Mitchell recounting a past experience or just spewing words straight out of his head onto the paper. Either that or I just saw a hell of a lot of myself (maybe myself in years to come) in the main character – a man, bit of a writer, bit of a musician, and not really much of anything, wandering the streets of North London pondering about the meaning life and the arbitrarity of chance? All too familiar…

After ‘London’ the final chapters take a rather interesting turn. Let’s just say, the novel, which had previously seemed like a slightly disjointed collection of short stories, really starts to piece together, and not necessarily in the way you might think…

All I’m going to say is it involves islands and tunnels; quarks and quasars; a bat and a zookeeper… I’ll leave you to figure out the rest.

But anyway, in conclusion, Mitchell has written a really fantastic book here. The way he merges the individual story lines of each character with different genres, themes, and writing styles, is, although sometimes slightly over-ambitious, a really entertaining and imaginative way to put together a novel. I don’t quite think it deserved 5/5 (for some of the reasons I stated above) but I thoroughly enjoyed it and I look forward to reading the next chapter in the ‘mega-novel’ – Number9dream – at some point in the not too distant future!


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