80 of 86 people found the following review helpful
A fearless feast of a book,
This review is from: Ghostwritten: A Novel (Hardcover)
Ambitious, complex, and intriguing, Mitchell's first novel grapples with the paradox of a small, vast world. His nine interlocking chapters (plus a tenth which circles back to the first) are narrated by a disparate lot from around the globe, connected sometimes by only a glimpse and a fleeting thought, sometimes by more fateful encounters. As the book proceeds, more connections become apparent, most of them random.
It's an intriguing organization, best followed by reading the book in one sitting, so as to keep track of the various plot threads and people. However, at 426 pages, this is unlikely for most readers.
But Mitchell's novel is more than a philosophical play on fate and chance and the six degrees of separation that radiate from us in all directions. The novel is filled with real characters, some venal and pathetic, some appealing, a few remote, one repellant. The settings range from self-consciously contemporary Hong Kong and earnest, teeming Tokyo to a tight-knit island off the Irish coast, the Mongolian desert, a remote Chinese mountain, a late-night radio station in New York, the streets of London and the bleak underside of post-Soviet St. Petersburg.
One narrator is a bent lawyer haunted (literally) by the ghost of a little girl, a pawn to his own greed, trapped by his estranged wife, his rapacious Chinese maid and his high-powered, crooked employer. Another is a self-deluded Russian woman, trying to escape her life by a big score in stolen art. The book opens with the fervid ramblings of a Japanese cult fanatic, a terrorist who planted poison gas on a Tokyo subway, and closes with the same or similar narrator.
A young musician and writer in London, whose life is adrift, saves a stranger from being rundown by a taxi, drifts some more, then makes the big decision he's been wrestling with all along. A young jazz musician in Tokyo, also adrift, makes a leap for love. A brilliant physicist whose discoveries are used in the Gulf War flees home to Ireland but is forced to succumb to the strong arm of the American military.
Some chapters are more successful than others. Which these are, however, is a matter of taste. The writing soars energetically throughout but styles, moods, even genres vary. Mitchell employs ghosts, apocalyptic scenarios, sociopathic thugs both criminal and sanctioned, as well as ordinary longings, ambitions, loves and failures.
An old Chinese woman narrates my favorite chapter. Her long and eventful life is lived entirely around her tea shack on a rural mountain path leading to a Buddhist temple. Here she is raped by a warlord and abused and despised by her lazy father. The Japanese invasion comes to her mountain and then the Chinese Nationalists, the Communists and the cadres of the Cultural Revolution each in turn bring violence and destruction to her life and livelihood. And each time she rebuilds her shack. She finds solace and companionship in a speaking tree and grows wise in the ways of the world without ever venturing into it. Hers is a marvelous voice, sharp without being hard, sardonic but never jaded, full of life and wit and complexity.
Another favorite is the chapter that follows, in which a transmigrating spirit goes on a pilgrimage to discover its origin and meaning. The spirit moves from person to person by touch and crosses Mongolia in pursuit of a folktale, inhabiting a Western tourist, a suspicious old peasant woman, a shaman, a vicious killer and more. Exploring the human psyche, it struggles to do no harm but its own goal remains paramount. Delightfully strange.
As for flaws: some characters are less well developed than others and the apocalyptic elements are jarring and unconvincing. The penultimate chapter brings us to the brink of World War III which may have been brought on by a well-meaning artificial (possibly) intelligence with godlike access to our technology. The transition from explorations of human nature, connections and chance to a sci-fi parable is unconvincing at best.
But Mitchell writes with the confidence of an artist with no fear. He will try anything, no matter how fantastic or mundane. His writing switches from displays of virtuosity to sober meditation, his point-of-view from intimate exchange to global conspiracy.
An excellent, engaging book, sure to attract as much criticism as praise, which is by no means a bad thing.