This is another first for me. My first time reading a novel by David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas (no not him of Peep Show and Mitchell and Webb, a different one). He has a reputation for the cerebral yet human story and this, nine seemingly unrelated stores in one, is one of his most celebrated works.
Blending human stories with a hefty dose of weirdness – some of the characters contemplate alternate realities for example, and the financial executive is told how the ghost of a young girl lives in his apartment. This supernatural / paranormal element blend well, with the setting perhaps hinting at the science of modern Japan and China while exploring some of the metaphysics of Buddhist belief (first half only; the second half visits London and St. Petersburg amongst other places). In a way, this put me in mind of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Vinland: The Dream in terms of style and tone.
A cult member on the loose in Okinawa reflects on his time in the cult immediately following its shut down by the authorities. In Tokyo, a jazz player falls in love with a girl who walks into the shop he works in. He expects never to see her again. In Hong Kong, a financial executive gets in deep as his marriage falls apart, his maid becomes an FWB and he contemplates the money laundering he is caught up in. In Holy Mountain, an old lady looks back on her life – when she was raped by a local warlord as a girl, through the end of old China, the rise of Communism there and the changes of the last few decades. In Mongolia, a spirit that occupies people’s bodies does all it can to figure out where it came from. I won’t bore you with quick summaries on all of them, but I will say that these are seemingly separate stories that are linked together to create a single, interesting narrative.
It’s a very easy read which is surprising considering it aims for the high brow and largely succeeds at it. Few of these characters are likeable and some are quite unlikeable but you care about what will happen to them anyway – even if that is not always for the better. After a while, you start to see the stories threading together and intertwining and that is the true beauty of this story and where Mitchell succeeds.
It won’t be for everyone. For much of the text it is not clear where it is going or even what the point is. A bit like the film Pulp Fiction it feels little more than a series of intertwined narratives where not a lot happens. But stick with it because it is an interesting read for a lazy weekend and it makes you think a bit.