NEHS April Book Review: Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

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Ghostwritten, the first novel composed by the English author, David Mitchell, was published in 1999, and won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. Although the piece holds no sequels, it provides a variety of forward references to Mitchell’s later books, Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas.

The novel is divided into eleven fragments, with the first nine detailing the insights of nine different individuals, and the remaining two settling a conclusion to a rather complex string of stories. In sequential order, the story entails a genocidal cult member in Okinawa, a young jazz enthusiast and record shop clerk in Tokyo, a British money launderer in Hong Kong, a Buddhist woman who owns a tea shack in the “Holy Mountain” of China, a disembodied “noncorporum” with the ability to transmigrate between hosts in Mongolia, a museum curator involved with art thieves in Saint Petersburg, Russia, a ghostwriter and musician in London, and a physicist that studies quantum cognition hiding from the United States Government in Clear Island, Ireland.

Ghostwritten distorts the margins between reality and fiction in the story by requiring its readers to figure for themselves the times in which they should trust in the credibility of its narrators, because although most events are authentic in their historical and geographical contexts, they are altered by differing perspectives: from the cult member, Quasar, fully believing that he holds the power of telepathy, to the money launderer, Neal Brose, claiming that there is a ghost of a young girl in his apartment. The novel does demand a high degree of dissection and deep analysis, since all the stories are somehow interlinked and provide a string of cause and effects. A great feature of the book is that it gets better each time it is read over, since minute details can be so easily missed, such as the young couple the money launderer in China envied is actually the record shop clerk and his newly met lover from another chapter, or how the daughter of the illegitimate child born by the Tea Shack lady is the power obsessive maid encountered in London.

The novel’s strongest attribute, however, is its rich understanding of every culture it entails, something Mitchell professed to have focused on perfecting by travelling across the globe to various continents. The novel moves throughout East Asia, Russia, Britain, the United States, and Ireland, and manages to catch even the slightest details and customs that make up a culture, along with very realistic reactions and thoughts from its respective characters, and he never steps down to rely on stereotypes and generalizations.

Every scene manages to compliment another, like how the dull and boring lifestyle embodied by smooth jazz titles to fit the story in the record shop is appreciated after reading through the tyrannical rule of the warlord in a province of China, or the near insanity of the cult member is further understood after he is contacted by the Zookeeper and the “noncorporum.” Although the novel boasts a lengthy 426 pages, it is very much worth the read, as it gives a very realistic taste to an otherwise scientific and superstitious fantasy, and allows you to relish the position of being a Ghostreader.