Cecily's book reviews

In general I've written reviews of every book I've read since I joined GoodReads (RIP) in May 08, along with one or two I read prior to that. More recent reviews tend to be longer (sometimes a tad too long?). I always carry a book, though I don't get as much time as I'd like to get engrossed - life is busy, but in a good way. Too many of my favourite authors died without writing enough! Apart from reading, and writing about reading, I enjoy Scrabble, good restaurants, woodland, and attending the theatre.
Ghostwritten - David Mitchell This predates the more famous “Cloud Atlas” (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/23327001) by about four years; it has similarities of theme (connectedness, migrating spirits), structure (linked narratives, in contrasting styles), and even characters, but in a less contrived format. The subtitle is “A novel in nine parts”, and although some of the earlier ones could be read as standalone short stories, that would be missing the point, particularly with the later sections. Much as I love Cloud Atlas, I still prefer this.

THEMES

Despite the many similarities with Cloud Atlas, particularly the themes of connectedness and migrating spitits, there is a profound difference of main theme and thus tone: whereas CA is primarily about the many ways humans exploit each other, Ghostwritten is ultimately more positive, focusing on turning points in people’s lives, leading to new starts – even though there is often a great deal of menace and (often justified) paranoia leading up to that point.

Related to that, the way people collude in their own deception is also a common thread in most of the stories, whether by a cult, the desire for wealth, a political power, fear of the mob, love for an abuser, or craving for world peace. As one character explains, “The bigger the fib, the bigger they bite… Tell people that reality is exactly what it appears to be, they’ll nail you to a lump of wood” and he then gives examples of far-fetched theories, adding “Disbelieving the reality under your feet gives you a licence to print your own. All it takes is an original twist.”

The other recurring word is “chance”, especially in the later parts: the odds of finding a long-lost relative, the name of a band, visiting a casino, and even explaining quantum physics (“Quantum physics speaks in chance, with the syntax of uncertainty”). More fundamentally, it's about how much free will we have, and how much is predestined by external forces.

1 OKINAWA

The first story follows ‘Quasar’, a member of a Japanese doomsday cult, who is on the run after a terrorist incident. It explores his reasons for joining, how he has come to believe that ends justify horrific means, the way he seeks and sees meaning in chance, and even how he explains away the hypocrisy of guru His Serendipity’s personal wealth and lifestyle. There are also some delightful cameos of small town Japan, including a farmer who “every time he used the word ‘computer’ he sealed it in inverted commas”.

2 TOKYO

Satoru is a young jazz fan, working in a record shop. He’s a bit of a loner, and in quiet moments, he contemplates the chance of him randomly meeting his real father. Jazz is his “place”, very necessary in such a crowded city, and because, as he notes, “People with no place are those who end up throwing themselves onto the tracks”. He meets and falls for a customer, Tomoyo, but she lives in Hong Kong.

There are some lovely passages describing cherry blossom at various stages, culminating in “On the tree, it turns ever more perfect. And when it’s perfect, it falls. And then of course once it hits the ground it gets all mushed up. So it’s only absolutely perfect when it’s falling through the air.”

For such a layered and connected novel, I was amused to read “For a moment I had an odd sensation of being in a story that someone was writing”!

3 HONG KONG

This is a more confused story, with a different sort of paranoia: Neal Brose is a yuppie financial lawyer who has guilty dreams about secret bank accounts and, it turns out, other things. This affects his health and muddles his mind and narrative even more. Although I’ve read it before, I was sometimes confused about the status of various females he refers to (alive, dead, estranged, imaginary, ghostly). ”I’ve been living with three women. One was a ghost, who is now a woman. One was a woman, who is now a ghost. One is a ghost and always will be.” At one point, “I looked up, and saw myself looking down through smoked glass, from amongst the tops of my unmoving heads. Like I was spirit-walking”.

Neal describes himself as “a man of departments, compartments, apartments… My future is in another compartment, but I’m not looking into that one.” Introspection doesn’t really help, “Is it not a question of cause and effect, but a question of wholeness?” Inevitably, things come to a head when such distinctions start to encroach on each other.

4 HOLY MOUNTAIN

Most of the stories take place in the space of a few days or hours (with a little backstory), but this covers a lifetime of a Buddhist girl in a tea shack on a holy mountain in Tibet, from where she encounters all the political upheavals of the 20th century.

She is brave, philosophical, devout, and though not formally educated, very perceptive. “On the Holy Mountain, all the yesterdays and tomorrows spin around again sooner or later… We mountain dwellers live on the prayer wheel of time.” Similarly, after encountering warlords, nationalists and Communists, she realised that they’re all different but all the same: unlike protagonists in some of the other stories, she is aware of the dangers (and resistant to) delusions and brain-washing; of the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward, she notes “They didn’t want to believe it was true, so they didn’t”. I was often reminded of “Wild Swans” (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/95730125).

Towards the end of her life, her thinking seems a little less clear (she sees a spirit girl, and her Tree bears almonds, hazelnuts – and persimmons), but it’s all about laying spirits to rest, continuity and responsibility.

5 MONGOLIA

This is the central section of the book, in terms of position and content. Right from the start, there is something odd about this narrator, who seems to know too much, although the reason soon becomes clear. It’s impossible to say much about this section without explaining the narrator, which is the key to the whole novel: it is a disembodied spirit (noncorpum), who travels from host to host. “Backpackers are strange. I have a lot in common with them. We live nowhere, and we are strangers everywhere. We drift, often on a whim, searching for something to search for. We are both parasites… We chew the secretions of solitude”.

The spirit is on a quest to find out about itself (“whether others of my kind exist”) and also to discover the source of a tale about the three animals who think about the fate of the world. There are lots of interestingly described ideas and sensations about transmigration: “As my infancy progressed, I became aware of another presence in ‘my’ body. Stringy mists of colour and emotion condensed into droplets of understanding… Like being plugged into a plotless movie”, and “The fact that touch is a requisite provides a clue that I exist on some physical plane”.

As with all the other stories, the spirit is faced with a choice that will change everything: it chooses mortality
.

6 PETERSBURG

Back to a more straightforward narrator (though plenty of crossings and double-crossings in the plot), but with an increasing number of nods to other stories (e.g. casual references to Hong Kong, not directly linked to the plot). It is a relatively straightforward heist, set in the Hermitage. Margarita is a curator with an unsavoury boyfriend (many dodgy aspects and businesses) who does most of the organising, though he isn’t the guy at the top. They are planning to take “Eve and the Serpent” by Delacroix – lots of symbolism there! There is also Jerome, a retired English spy (shades of Anthony Blunt).

7 LONDON

The connections are stacking up, but this is primarily about Marco, a philandering ghostwriter and some-time drummer in a band called The Music of Chance. He gets philosophical at times, contemplating fate and the relative importance of chance and choice in determining our lives. His girlfriend, Poppy, accuses him, “You love talking about cause. You never talk about effect.” He also explains his career: “I couldn’t hack the Samaritans… I couldn’t get to sleep afterwards, worrying about the possible endings of the stories that had been started. Maybe that’s why I’m a ghostwriter. The endings have nothing to do with me.” Later , “We’re all ghostwriters… We all think we’re in control of our own lives, but really they’re pre-ghostwritten.” This is probably the most connected story, and the fact it is also about a ghostwriter is presumably no coincidence, given that this is Mitchell.

This story has a strong sense of place and there is a delightful riff on the personalities of different Tube lines:” London is a language” and the District and Circle lines are “as bad as how I imagine Tokyo is.” However, it gets a little mysterious when there is a near accident and strange men in suits appear.

8 CLEAR ISLAND

Shades of the cold war, here. Mo is an Irish scientist who has been researching an AI called quantum cognition (quancog), but having realised the dangerous military uses it will be put to, she has fled home, where she wrestles with her conscience and fear of being found. “Can nuclear technology… be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? The only words for technology is ‘here’ and ‘not here’. The question is, once here, what are we going to do with it?”

It’s not immediately clear whether her options are sequential ones that really happen, or parallel possibilities, only some of which happen. It creates uncertainty in the mind of the reader – in a good way.

9 NIGHT TRAIN

The Night Train is actually a late-night phone-in show on a New York radio station, hosted by Bat Segundo. Naturally, it’s common for weirdos to ring, and one such goes by the name of Zookeeper. People can’t agree if Zookeeper sounds male or female, and Z talks in a slightly stilted, prophetic, and ominous way reminiscent of HAL in 2001. It’s not immediately clear whether Z is a standard oddball, or somehow connected to one of the other characters.

It turns out that Zookeeper is Mo’s AI, now trying to save the world from global war (life on Earth being the zoo), within certain laws, which are not explicitly spelt out, but seem to echo Azimov's laws: the first is accountability (to who?), the second is invisibility (to humans), the third I missed and the fourth was preserving life (not just human) - so maybe the third is preserving human life specifically. Zookeeper is self-aware and raises the question of whether AI is equivalent to a noncorpum soul. The latter asks it, “How could a being with your resources believe yourself to be the only non-corporeal sentient intelligence wandering the surface of creation?” Zookeeper says, “They regard me as the fallen angel. They transmigrate into human chaff for hosts, and meditate upon nothingness on mountains”.

UNDERGROUND

The last, very short, section takes us full circle. Quasar is on the subway, about to detonate his device, filled with images (many from adverts) of other people and places in the book, questioning reality and what he will do. “Wait for the comet, wait for the White Nights.”

CONNECTIONS

There are many people, events and things that crop up in more than one of the stories, all emphasising the secondary themes of connectedness and migrating spirits. Spotting them is a bit like a treasure hunt, hence the spoiler tags (I’ve listed them primarily for my own reference and I’m sure there are plenty I’ve missed):



• The preface quotes “The Bridge of san Luis Rey”, and Luisa Rey pops up in Night Train , including “could it be bathing the world in evil?” [4]; one around the time of a transmigration in Mongolia [5]; the possibility of one in the sky above Petersburg [6] (“The stars are not quite there tonight. A light is moving amongst them. A comet, or an angel…?”); Katy Forbes [3, 7] has a comet-shaped birthmark; Zookeeper [9] mentions a book called “Earthbound Comet”; the passing of Comet Aloysius is mentioned several times in Night Train [9], and at the end, Quasar is waiting for the comet.

• The tea house [4] woman’s granddaughter “cleans foreigners’ apartments” and when her wealthy lawyer employer dies, he is very generous to her in his will. He is almost certainly Neal Brose [3].

• A visitor to Holy Mountain [4] has a mother from Mongolia who passed on a story about three animals who think about the fate of the world. In Mongolia [5], Caspar knows this Mongolian legend, but can’t understand how/why he knows it. Also in Mongolia, the spirit narrator states its mission to trace the origin of this story.

• The narrator in Mongolia [5] says “My own infancy was spent at the foot of the Holy Mountain” [4], and later specifies that its first host was the girl in the tea shack.

• Caspar [5] sold jewellery in Okinawa [1].

• Caspar [5] once saw a film about an art heist in Petersburg [6].

• The noncorpum narrator [5] moves into Mongolian KGB agent Suhbataar who has overlords in Petersburg [6] and turns up there.

• Margarita [6] dreams of a gas attack in a subway [1].

• Rudi [6] launders heist money through Neal Brose’s [3] secret bank on behalf of Gregorski’s money.

• Neal Brose’s [3] estranged widow Katy has a one-night stand with Marco in London [7].

• Tim Cavendish [CA, 7] is Marco’s [7] literary agent and the brother of Neal Brose’s [3] boss, Denholme Cavendish.

• Marco [7] is a ghostwriter – echoing the title of the book – and one of his subjects is a friend of Jerome, the art forger [6].

• When Marco [7] contemplates escaping his life, he says “Mongolia [5] would suite me fine”.

• Tim Cavendish [CA, 7] is publishing His Serendipity’s [1] sacred revelations.

• In a café, Marco [7] chats up a woman who is reading a book about spiritwalking, by Dwight Silverwind [9].

• Tim Cavendish’s [CA, 7] publishing company runs into trouble when his brother’s company is sunk because of Neal Brose’s [3] dealings.

• Katy Forbes [3, 7] has a comet-shaped birthmark that Marco [7] sees.

• The woman Marco [7] saves from being run over by a taxi is Mo [8].

• Mo [8] flees to Hong Kong [3] and Petersburg [6], having previously been in London [7]. In Mongolia[5] she meets the Australian, Sherry, who hooks up with Caspar.

• Mo’s [8] husband plays random notes on the piano and describes them as “the music of chance”, the name of Marco’s 7] band.

• Mo [8] sees Neal’s [3] collapse and death on Lantau.

• Luisa Rey [CA] calls Night Train [9] and is a true crime writer whose works include “The Hermitage” [6].

• Zookeeper [9] mentions Dwight Silverwind [7].

• At the end [10], Quasar has impressions of a mountain tea shack [4], Mongolia [5], Petersburg [6], a Land Cruiser [5, 6] and others.



MISCELLANEOUS QUOTES

• A hotel receptionist, “her smile as ironed as her uniform”

• Japanese city department stores “rising up like windowless temples, dazzling the unclean into compliance”

• “Jigsaw pieces of my dream lay dropped around”

• Being engaged “adds the thrill of adultery while subtracting any responsibility”!

• Tokyo is so cramped “You’re pressed against people body to body… Apartment windows have no view but other apartment windows. No, in Tokyo, you have to make your place inside your head”

• “The her that lived in her looked out through her eyes, through my eyes and at the me that lives in me.”

• The tyranny of mobile phones, “When these things first appeared, they were so cool. Only when it was too late did people realise they are as cool as electronic tags on remand prisoners”.

• “I answer it, allowing the electrons of irrelevance to finish their journey along wires, into space and back into my ear.”

• “We walk up the steps… brighter and brighter, into a snowstorm of silent steps.” Referring to Neal’s death, on Lantau.

• “Silence thickened the air. The mist had closed in… The afternoon became so sluggish that it stopped altogether.”

Having borne a child (only because she was raped), a girl realises “Perhaps in a few years some widower pig farmer might be persuaded to take me in as a mistress and nurse for his old age. If I was lucky. I resolved then and there not to be luck.” The feelings of the rape victim, many years later, are explored very sensitively and plausibly.

• “His skin had less life in it than a husk in a spider’s web.”

• “Night stole over the land again, dissolving it in shadows and blue. Every ten or twenty miles tongues of campfire licked the darkness.”

• “Dusk was sluggish with cold”

• “Petersburg is built of sob stories, pile-driven down into the mud.”

• When drunk “my words forgot their names”.

• “Indifference as dent-proof as fog” and “a sigh [that] would drain a salad of all colour.”

• “My room is too much like a Methodist chapel. I’m more of a Church of the Feral Pagan type.”

• “Memories are their own descendants masquerading as the ancestors of the present.”

• Tapes from family “prised the lid off homesickness and rattled out the contents, but always at the bottom was solace.”

There are a few weak joke reversals that seem out of place from a writer of Mitchell’s stature, who loves Japan and SE Asia so much (he lived there for years and his wife is Japanese): Westerners all look the same, and can’t learn Japanese. Then, on Holy Mountain, an old woman has her first ever hamburger but “I was hungry again less than an hour afterwards”.

HOW TO READ THIS – and CLOUD ATLAS

I first read them in the early 2000s, in publication order, and this year, I’ve reread them in reverse order. I don’t think the sequence matters, but there are benefits to reading each of them in a few longish chunks of reading time, and not having too long a gap between the two. That way you’re more likely to notice when some trivial thing from an earlier story is mentioned again. An ereader would help, too.



Review from early 2000s

His first novel, generously infused with his experiences of living in the Orient (the Chinese strand, Holy Mountain, is exquisite).

It is several stories told by different protagonists, in different styles, some with an ethereal/mythical quality, some much harsher and more modern - all of them believable and enticing. I found this a more subtle approach to linked lives than the somewhat gimmicky method in Cloud Atlas (though I still enjoyed that: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/23327001).

Just as the stories are linked, so are the spirits of the characters, each looking for their own private head space in a busy and changing world, but these links also question the nature of free will and chance versus determinism - and more besides.

In lesser hands it could come across as a showy literary exercise in writing in different styles, but he pulls it off as a coherent, profound, intriguing and enjoyable book.

(Note: Some of the characters appear in Cloud Atlas and another in Black Swan Green.)

Currently reading

The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy
Sebastian Peake, China Miéville, Mervyn Peake
Gormenghast
Mervyn Peake