Posted by: Corri van de Stege | May 17, 2010

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

I read this book before: a long time ago now (my paperback copy has quite a different cover).   Or rather, I tried to read it but somehow never finished it and that was probably because it is quite a tough book to get through.  In reality it seems more a collection of short stories, rather than a novel.  The stories are held together by odd encounters between the characters in the different stories, seemingly totally haphazard, sometimes without any effect at all, at other times actually being part of a chain of cause and effect.

The first story, or chapter, has the title Okinawa and  throughout the book locations set the story, whether place names or references to places, such as ‘island’.  Okinawa is about a terrorist who is responsible for the killing of hundreds of people on an underground train.  As in all the following chapters, the first person voice is used, so we see and experience everything from very close up, we inhabit the skin of the protagonist in the story.  This first chapter has Quasar, who is in the service of Serendipity, the mastermind behind a terror organisation.  We soon realise Quasar is a duped fanatic, who is on the verge of what we would consider insanity, he has so many hang-ups that it is not surprising he was an easy target for Serendipity and his organisation, an unscrupulous sect that uses him to their own ends.  Easy for us to see, much less self-evident for someone like Quasar himself for whom the sect is his family, he adores their members and in particular Serendipity.

In ‘Tokyo’ a young and very likeable character called Soturu is a jazz fan who works in a small shop full of vintage jazz, Takeshi’s shop. 

                ‘My place comes into evidence through jazz.  Jazz makes a fine place.  The colours and feelings there come not from the eye but from sounds.  It’s like being blind but seeing more.  This is why I work here in Takeshi’s shop.  Not that I could ever put that into words.’

One day three girls enter the shop, and Soturu falls head over heels in love with one of them, she holds herself aloof from the other two.

                ‘I’d thought about the girl every day since.  Twenty or thirty or forty times a day……’ then

                ‘I got angry with myself.  It’s not as if I’m ever going to see her again.  This is Tokyo. And besides, even if I did see her again, why should she be in the least bit interested in me?’

Then, serendipity.  One afternoon, when Osuru has already locked up shop and is outside, he hears the telephone ring inside and he is so conscientious that he decides to unlock and go back in to find out who it is.  It turns out to be an unknown voice, someone who sounds worried, and who says:

                ‘It’s Quasar.  The dog needs to be fed.’

Osuru has no idea who or what this is about, however, he is back in the shop and then the door opens and who walks in but the girl he’s fallen in love with, he’d never expected to see her again.  If he had not gone back in he would never have met her properly: his life has been profoundly changed by this telephone call, this voice from Quasar.

These are the kind of haphazard connections that Mitchell plays with throughout the book, through stories leading from Osaka to Tokyo, via a Mongolian Ghost and a Ghost-writer in London to ‘Underground’, and the last story where we arrive full circle with Quasar blowing up another underground train, nearly getting caught in it himself in the process.

The links between the characters are tenuous and because of this it’s really not an easy book to read, unless you like moving from one seemingly unrelated story into another, stories that are dense and have different approaches with sometimes quite difficult settings and relationships to get your head around.  It’s not easy precisely because of the disconnect, which  gets full treatment in the story about the quantum physicist where the randomness of particles, yet so predictable, are played with.  Mitchell gives us essays about chance events, the inexplicable yet so determined bits of experience, things we miss, simply don’t notice, in our everyday lives.  These characters don’t notice, anyway.  They don’t really know who these other people are that appear to have a definitive influence on where they go or what they do.  It’s the big ‘if’ in everyone’s life.  How do people meet their partners, how do they lose them, how do they end up living in one place in some case and move from continent to continent and in in different countries in other cases. 

Because of the links between the different stories, there is the sense of a novel after all.  They provide a track across countries and continents, cultures and societies that keep you on your toes all the time.  It’s not an easy read, as I said, because of this.  Not only are characters related only haphazardously, there are also world events and movements that mysteriously connect: the Russian mafia, Chinese repression under Mao, the American ‘pre-emptive strike’ in Iraq, environments in which the characters live and which provide the settings for their moral values.  The book is genuinely complicated, and that may be part of its weakness.  Sometimes it is as if the writer is overwhelmed by his own desire to make sense of it all, to convince us that he can relate the whole world in one large mosaic ‘novel’. 

In ‘The Island’ Mo Muntervary is a Quantum Mechanics physicist expert who decides to hand in her notice when she realises her expertise is being used to annihilate people in the ‘pre-emptive strike’ by the Americans.  She is put under pressure by the Americans to move from her current location, Switzerland, to America to complete her ‘Quantumcog’ programme and to make sure that her expertise and discoveries are not going to be used by ‘unscrupulous nations’.  She makes a run for it and eventually returns to her island off the coast of Ireland, where her (blind) husband lives, where her son comes to visit her and where her friends are – where she grew up.  There are complicated allusions to the previous stories, again through references made to chance encounters, ranging from the Ghost-writer to the Mongolian Ghost and other characters.   Here the emphasis is on the randomness of particles and events.

I only decided to reread this book because I really want to read Michell’s latest book ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob the Zoet’.    Reviews claim that this last book is quite different from his earlier writing and so I want to be able to find out how different. 

I have tickets for Mitchell’s session at the Hay-on-Wye book festival, next bank holiday weekend, and MUST read this book about before I get there.  I am interested in his take on a Dutchman in Japan.  After all the ‘Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie’ or VOC was part and parcel of my history lessons back in my childhood in Holland.  Jacob de Zoet as an employee of the VOC and the protagonist of this book of course tickles my curiosity!  So below a picture of the Dejima, the artificial island in the Bay of Nagasaki where it all takes place:



  1. […] Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten (which I have reviewed here) contain different stories, which then find resonance within the other stories of the book, The […]

  2. […] Atlas is not an easy book to read, but utterly fascinating and as with Ghostwritten, reviewed here, I appreciate this book even more on second […]

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