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David Mitchell: Ghostwritten

When first released, this novel received huge acclaim as a thoroughly original, beautifully written work. The praise it received was fully justified as it is hard to think of a debut English novel of such talent during the modern period. It is subtitled a novel in nine parts and, indeed, it tells nine stories (plus a coda). While reading you may well wonder what the connection is between the nine parts or, indeed, if there is any connection. There is, of course a connection but often it seems tenuous at best. You may well be reading and suddenly catch a glimpse of something – like seeing a place from an unfamiliar perspective – and realise that it referred to something in a previous story. Some may find this distracting but it definitely worked for me, not least because the nine separate stories all stood up very well on their own and, as with any good novel, you are always looking for the connections. Some have complained about the fantasy/ghost element in the book (the title is of course a play on words on the two obvious meanings of ghost written). The fact is that, at least for me, fantasy stuck in a standard novel sometimes works and sometimes does not. It does not work very well for me, for example, in Jonathan Lethem or China Miéville (though obviously does for others) but in this book, it not only does not jibe but fits in, not least because of the exotic locations of much of the book. Of course, the whole book is derivative of Murakami but with its own style.

The first story is about a cult organisation that carries out an attack on the Tokyo subway like the actual 1995 attack. We follow both the perpetrator and the head of the organisation, who claims supernatural powers. From there we move to the story of a young Japanese man who works in a Tokyo jazz record store, with an absent boss with marital problems (Mitchell has clearly read his Hornby). Next, we are off to Hong Kong where a trader is caught up in dirty financial deeds (shades of Nick Leeson?), also misses his wife, who has left him and has an odd affair with maid. Next is the story of a holy mountain, a mountain dear to the locals in China and the vicissitudes it faces as various groups take power, each one as bad as the others, told through the eyes of a woman who sells tea to pilgrims and, later, tourists. The next episode is the least convincing as we follow a malign spirit as it travels through various people in Mongolia (thereby telling their tales) before finding its proper home. By this time, one or two connections are coming through, as we move off to present-day St Petersburg and an elaborate art theft in the Hermitage before heading to London where we meet the estranged wife of the Hong Kong trader we had met earlier, as well as her one night stand who really is a ghostwriter, struggling to earn a living and with his own marital issues. A brilliant Irish nuclear physicist who wants out and to return to her Irish roots and live with her blind husband but, of course, cannot and a late night radio talk show where the host has, of course, marital problems and constantly speaks to someone who is clearly the head of the organisation that organised the gas attack, whom we met in the first chapter, wrap the story up.

As I said, many of these stories stand on their own, not least because Mitchell keeps up the pace and plot and keeps us guessing as to what the point is, where it is going and where the connections are. The key theme – we are entering a new world involving smart gangsters with no attachments to any country or locale, quantum physics, things happening with computers that we ordinary mortals have no idea about, international terrorism but also with an element of love, magic and good music – gradually comes out and is key to holding it all together. Mitchell writes so well that you will be carried along with it.

Publishing history

First published 1999 by Sceptre