Sometimes the circumstances in which we read a book matters almost more than the book itself. Lawrence Durrell’s The Revolt of Aphrodite will, for me, always be associated with a stone bridge over a dusty river bed in the middle of a Greek island, with a bag of huge purple grapes and the lazy hum of insects. Ghostwritten (Sceptre, 1999) is going to have similar associations. I read the first five pages on the flight to Montpellier, then it stayed in the bag for the rest of the week until I did my knee in on the Friday. This meant I wasn’t able to do the walk on Saturday, so I was transported, along with the luggage, to the isolated gite high on the slopes of Peyrepetuse where we were to spend Saturday night. Here I sat under a trellis loaded with heavy, fat grapes accompanied by the buzz of wasps. Occasionally the owner of the gite would appear to gather tomatoes for the evening meal, or to pick blackberries for tomorrow morning’s jam. Once he placed a glass of wine and a carafe of water in front of me, once more he brought tea while he and his wife settled down to an acrimonious game of chess. But mostly there was no interruption to the long, hot, slow day, just me and the book and the absolute quiet. I didn’t quite finish the book during the day, but by then I was so enraptured by it that I had to hurry through the few remaining pages on the bus to the airport and the flight home next day.
Read when it first appeared, as a first novel without any context, this must have been a dazzling, breathtaking firecracker of a book. Read now, after the even more dazzling Cloud Atlas, it comes over as a dry run for the bigger novel. Luisa Rey even puts in an appearance, not as the heroine of a series of thrillers but as the author of them; and there is a passing reference to the comet-shaped birthmark that tags the successive protagonists of Cloud Atlas. And the structure … oh yes, the structure. We start with the person who perpetrated the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo underground as he flees to ever more remote Japanese islands, at the same time becoming ever more isolated from the cult that sent him on the mission. Then the scene abruptly shifts to a young man managing a small record shop in Tokyo and falling in love with a visitor from Hong Kong. But buried within this second story is the ghost of a reference to the first tale. Then we shift to Hong Kong and the story of the last day of a divorced Englishman caught up in some shady deal. The young lovers from the last story appear in the background of this tale, so already we see the pattern: each story is individual, but each connects to the whole, sometimes obliquely, sometimes directly. That the Hong Kong tale is also a ghost story illustrates the flexibility of Mitchell’s narrative format and the sustained brilliance with which he can take on different voices and styles. Another story, just a little later in the sequence, tells of the journey of a soul as it seeks its host, yet this fits seemlessly into tales of gangsters and art fraud in post-communist Russia, of a gambling scam in contemporary London, and of icy cold war politics being turned upon a brilliant Irish scientist. One story, the penultimate one, is pure science fiction, the story of the end of the world as orchestrated by a super-intelligent computer; yet this story is written as a transcript of a New York late-night radio phone-in show. The gall of the man constantly amazes, but he carries it all off with panache.
As in Cloud Atlas, the stories work in their own right, but because they each carry a fragment of the other stories around them (though you have to keep your wits about you as you are reading precisely because of that) the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The stories in Cloud Atlas are longer, more varied in tone, and therefore contribute more richly to the whole. And because they move in and out of each other the structure works rather better than Ghostwritten where the succession of stories carries you along until the final piece which attempts, not altogether successfully, to reintegrate the whole. Still, that is not to say this is not a dazzling novel that you really should make a point of reading.
First published at Livejournal, 12 September 2004.