I love David Mitchell – I love how every book by him is more of an experience than just a read. This book felt like a whirlwind, or a roller coaster. It’s told in nine slightly-interlocking chapters. At first the chapters feel very distinct – a character in one might bump into a character in another – but as the book goes on the relationships grow. If that doesn’t make much sense, I get it. This is a really hard book to describe.
I don’t always understand Mitchell, and I get the sense his mind moves at a completely different pace than mine does. But where he really excels is in establishing unique voices and a clear sense of place. Setting is never accidental in his books, and here, the place of each chapter is significant. He moves us from Okinawa to Tokyo to Hong Kong, and later to Ireland, Mongolia, and London. Each chapter has a very different feel.
I also like how Mitchell takes you inside the heads of people who are really unlikable. You won’t want to be there, but you can’t tear yourself away. He moves back and forth between characters you’ll hate (like a terrorist cult member) and ones you’ll really like (a scientist trying to preserve her family and her integrity).
“The world is made of stories, not people. The people the stories use to tell themselves are not to be blamed.”
You’ve probably read Mitchell’s other works – this is his first novel and its incredibly dense and ambitious. It’s probably most like Cloud Atlas in scope. All Mitchell’s books are pretty different though they have similar themes and settings. Give yourself a chance to get into each chapter and you will be hooked.
This book is also full of the unexpected. A lot of the stories are realistic, yet there’s a sense of mysticism throughout some of them. One is even told through the eyes of a disembodied spirit, and another involves a corrupt lawyer who is haunted by the ghost of a child. And, like some of Mitchell’s other books, he takes us from past to future in one read.
“Without where I am from and who I am from, I am nothing, even if the glass is gone and conifers are growing through where the roof should be. All those wide-worlders in transit, all those misplaced, thrown-away people who know as little as they care about their roots—how do they do it? How do they know who they are?”
Some of the themes weaving throughout this book are the idea of truth, and what it means to tell one’s story. The title, Ghostwritten, refers to a character who is working on a biography as a ghostwriter. It also ties to Mitchell’s ideas about fate and our own control over our actions. Then the story takes a turn towards quantum cognition, and it’s there that my understanding gets a bit shaky.
“We’re all ghostwriters, my boy. And it’s not just our memories. Our actions, too. We all think we’re in control of our lives, but really they’re pre-ghostwritten by forces around us.”
There will be people who find this book too self-conscious, too confusing, or just too much. I wasn’t one of them, and if you’re a Mitchell fan I definitely recommend looking this one up. If you haven’t yet read Mitchell, one of his later works might be a better place to start (Cloud Atlas, Black Swan Green, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet).
Note: I read this book for the TBR Pile Challenge.