If asked to name my favourite authors, David Mitchell’s name would appear – the author, I always stress, not the comedian. As someone whose preference is for literary fiction, Mitchell is a sound call having had 5 novels Booker Prize nominated – 3 longlisted and 2 shortlisted. But their subject matter is quite the mix, for you’ll find out & out fantasy, along with good old fashioned story telling, on top of simply beautiful writing.
It’s been a long time since I read it, but I was introduced to Mitchell via Cloud Atlas. A random paperback tucked in with a parental birthday gift of money, the choice of book based on a sibling’s suggestion, Cloud Atlas isn’t something either the parent or any of the siblings would read – but it’s an utterly me sort of book, and I loved it. I went back to his earlier offerings of Ghostwritten and Number 9 Dream, then bought (in hardback no less) his semi-autobiographical novel Black Swan Green. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, The Bone Clocks and Slade House were each purchased and read upon release. So, when he released his latest novel Utopia Avenue back in the dark pandemic days of 2020, you’d have expected me to jump at it. But…. I read the blurb, and it just didn’t grab me. I have to acknowledge there is this problem for David Mitchell – a nice one to have, but a problem nevertheless – that his greatest work Cloud Atlas was so mind-bogglingly clever, that everything else can be seen to pale by comparison (a problem ably expressed by this Guardian reviewer‘s take on the new novel).
It’s now the final month of 2021 and I’ve finally purchased and read Utopia Avenue. Is is great? No, but it is good, possibly even very good. I absolutely raced through it, thoroughly enjoying the multiple point-of-view tale of the life and death of a new band during 1967 & 1968. I really liked the structure – the way each chapter was presented as a series of tracks, formed into three sections, each being one of their 3 albums. I don’t especially enjoy it when multiple POVs cover the same bit of the story, unless there is genuinely something new to learn from each viewpoint, but I do really like to hear the voices of the multiple protagonists – even the secondary ones – as is done here, and done well.
I was born in the late fifties and grew up in the third world, so my experience of that seminal time was very different. Viewing the centre of London through this book as a place where (relatively) ordinary people lived, was most enjoyable. It’s a part of London I know well – if from a later time – so joining each of the characters are they move from coffee shop or cafes, past book shops, from flats, to pubs and clubs, and to Soho offices, brought the area back to life.
Were there too many famous name-checks? Maybe. I feel fewer would’ve been better, but the music scene was probably like that back then. Some of the real life characters could’ve simply been described rather than name-checked, which could’ve made it a fun guessing game. For example, was it necessary to have name-checked David Bowie, when the description of “an elegant odd-eyed gentleman in a trenchcoat” was enough for even me to identify him?
I wondered if – and how – Mitchell would link this novel to others he’s written, something he’s known for…. even though it was a while before I caught on to this practice 😉 Some links are subtle such as the band’s Canadian manager who appears briefly in The Bone Clocks, and the lead guitarist, Jesper, being descended from the titular character of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. But the biggest overlap is when we re-visit the world of The Bone Clocks during the portion when Jesper’s psychosis causes a breakdown.
I often have problems with endings – but felt this was a good one, for a crash ‘n burn would’ve been too much of a cliché. So, while no Cloud Atlas, this was a most enjoyable read. Read it without heightened expectations, and I believe you could think so too.
© Debra Carey, 2021