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Ghostwritten : A Novel

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David Mitchell's electrifying debut novel takes readers on a mesmerizing trek across a world of human experience through a series of ingeniously linked narratives.

Oblivious to the bizarre ways in which their lives intersect, nine characters-a terrorist in Okinawa, a record-shop clerk in Tokyo, a money-laundering British financier in Hong Kong, an old woman running a tea shack in China, a transmigrating "noncorpum" entity seeking a human host in Mongolia, a gallery-attendant-cum-art-thief in Petersburg, a drummer in London, a female physicist in Ireland, and a radio deejay in New York-hurtle toward a shared destiny of astonishing impact. Like the book's one non-human narrator, Mitchell latches onto his host characters and invades their lives with parasitic precision, making Ghostwritten a sprawling and brilliant literary relief map of the modern world.

436 pages, Paperback

First published August 19, 1999

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About the author

David Mitchell

179 books13.8k followers
David Mitchell was born in Southport, Merseyside, in England, raised in Malvern, Worcestershire, and educated at the University of Kent, studying for a degree in English and American Literature followed by an M.A. in Comparative Literature. He lived for a year in Sicily, then moved to Hiroshima, Japan, where he taught English to technical students for eight years, before returning to England. After another stint in Japan, he currently lives in Ireland with his wife Keiko and their two children. In an essay for Random House, Mitchell wrote: "I knew I wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, but until I came to Japan to live in 1994 I was too easily distracted to do much about it. I would probably have become a writer wherever I lived, but would I have become the same writer if I'd spent the last 6 years in London, or Cape Town, or Moose Jaw, on an oil rig or in the circus? This is my answer to myself." Mitchell's first novel, Ghostwritten (1999), moves around the globe, from Okinawa to Mongolia to pre-Millennial New York City, as nine narrators tell stories that interlock and intersect. The novel won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize (for best work of British literature written by an author under 35) and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. His two subsequent novels, number9dream (2001) and Cloud Atlas (2004), were both shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In 2003, he was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. In 2007, Mitchell was listed among Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People in The World. Mitchell's American editor at Random House is novelist David Ebershoff.

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Profile Image for Kris.
175 reviews1,450 followers
June 29, 2013

There are so many people living in the world. We jostle up against each other in subway stations in Tokyo.

We crowd into art galleries in Petersburg, vying for the best location to view the masterpieces on display.

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We take trains and planes around the world, with mountains, plains, rivers, valleys, and, above all, people rushing by us, in a blur.

Holy Mountains, China

Where is there a place for the individual in the midst of this overwhelming motion?

Still from Koyaanisqatsi

In his first novel, Ghostwritten, David Mitchell innovatively explores our quest for understanding, for meaning, for connection, in the crowded isolation that makes up human life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This is a novel that explores big questions: is our life ruled by chance? Do the coincidences and parallels that help to connect people to one another have a deeper significance, or are they simply akin to the random effects of a ricocheting pinball? What is our connection to the planet -- is there a story that we can discover to explain our origins and, perhaps, point our way to the future? And in the end, are our lives and deaths marked by continuity and connection with others, or are we truly isolated, even when surrounded by so many others?

Mitchell’s novel is remarkable, not only because he explores such crucial questions, but also because he provides such poignant depictions of individuals and their settings. He structures the novel as a series of interconnecting chapters, each taking place in a different location, and each centering on a specific individual, from a cult member in Japan, to an employee in a jazz music store in Tokyo, to a woman selling tea in the shadow of one of China’s holy mountains, to a ghost or spirit moving from human host to human host in search of understanding of its origins. Although I have heard others describe these chapters as linked short stories, Mitchell’s careful attention to connecting themes, characters, and episodes provides them with a sense of coherence that gets stronger the further the reader gets into the book.

Making Your Place/Marking Your Place


Mitchell imbues the novel with a remarkable sense of place. He has a particular interest in representing city life in all its diversity. For example, in the Tokyo chapter, Satoru describes Tokyo as follows: “Twenty million people live and work in Tokyo. It’s so big that nobody really knows where it stops. It’s long since filled up the plain, and now it’s creeping up the mountains to the west and reclaiming land from the bay in the east. The city never stops rewriting itself. In the time one street guide is produced, it’s already become out of date. It’s a tall city, and a deep one, as well as a spread-out one. Things are always moving below you, and above your head. All these people, flyovers, cars, walkways, subways, offices, tower blocks, power cables, pipes, apartments, it all adds up to a lot of weight. You have to do something to stop yourself caving in, or you just become a piece of flotsam or an ant in a tunnel. In smaller cities people can use the space around them to insulate themselves, to remind themselves of who they are. Not in Tokyo. You just don’t have the space, not unless you’re a company president, a gangster, a politician or the Emperor. You’re pressed against people body to body in the trains, several hands gripping each strap on the metro trains. Apartment windows have no view but other apartment windows.
No, in Tokyo you have to make your place inside your head.” (37)
In this passage, Satoru conveys one of the central questions of Ghostwritten: how can humans carve out a place for themselves that provides them with a sense of identity and belonging, in the face of the postmodern weight which threatens to bury us?


Mitchell’s sense of place is so strong within the novel that he often represents cities almost as human characters. For example, Marco notes, “The top of the hill. Breathe in, look at that view, and breathe out! Quite a picture, isn’t it! Old Man London, out for the day.... Italians give their cities sexes, and they all agree that the sex for a particular city is quite correct, but none of them can explain why. I love that. London’s middle-aged and male, respectably married but secretly gay. I know its overlapping towns like I know my own body. The red brick parts around Chelsea and Pimlico, Battersea Power Station like an upturned coffee table.... The grimy estates down Vauxhall way. Green Park. I map the city by trigonometrical shag points. Highbury is already Katy Forbes. Putney is Poppy, and India of course, not that I shag India, she’s only five. Camden is Baggins the Tarantula. …” In spite of this personification, London still poses the danger of engulfing its residents: “A city is a sea that you lose things in. You only find things that other people have lost.” (282)

Hong Kong

London is a Language

There are many ways that Mitchell’s characters attempt to make their place. One is through a quest to explain experience and existence through language, which extends beyond humans to include cities and places as well. In the London chapter, Marco notes, “London is a language. I guess all places are.” (269) Throughout Ghostwritten, Mitchell returns repeatedly to the theme of language -- and its limitations. As the spirit notes in the Mongolia chapter, “Once or twice I’ve tried to describe transmigration to the more imaginative of my human hosts. It’s impossible. I know eleven languages, but there are some tunes that language cannot play. When another human touches my host, I can transmigrate. The ease of the transfer depends on the mind I am transmigrating into, and whether negative emotions are blocking me. The fact that touch is a requisite provides a clue that I exist on some physical plane, however sub-cellular or bio-electrical. There are limits. For example, I cannot transmigrate into animals, even primates: if I try the animal dies. It is like an adult’s inability to climb into children’s clothes. I’ve never tried a whale. But how it feels, this transmigration, how to describe that! Imagine a trapeze artist in a circus, spinning in emptiness. Or a snooker ball lurching around the table. Arriving in a strange town after a journey through turbid weather.
Sometimes language can’t even read the music of meaning.” (158-159)

Given the limitations of language, some of Mitchell’s characters gravitate to music instead, which features prominently throughout the novel. Satoru notes, “My place comes into existence 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.” (38) Marco is a drummer in a band called The Music of Chance, named after Paul Auster’s novel. And in the apocalyptic chapter “The Night Train,” DJ Bat Segundo’s choice of music provides a soundtrack for the critical questions that arise when New York is faced with the prospect of its destruction.

Ghosts, Spirits, Doubles, and the Human Spirit

Throughout the novel, Mitchell explores the limitations of physical boundaries. In spite of the walls and buildings and other physical barriers that separate us from each other, is there any indication that people transcend the physical? That physical boundaries are permeable, and that people can interact the most meaningfully with spiritual elements in their earthbound lives?

In some cases, the ghosts appear in forms familiar to Western readers. In the Hong Kong section, Neal Brose describes the ghost that shared an apartment with him and his wife Katy:
“Unless you’ve lived with a ghost, you can’t know the truth of it. You assume that morning, noon and night, you’re walking around obsessed, fearful and waiting for the exorcist to call. It’s not really like that. It’s more like living with a very particular cat. For the last few months I’ve been living with three women. One was a ghost, who is now a woman. One was a woman, who is now a ghost. One is a ghost, and always will be. But this isn’t a ghost story: the ghost is in the background, where she has to be. If she was in the foreground she’d be a person.” (93)

In other cases, Mitchell describes spirits that he models from Eastern traditions, as seen in my two favorite sections of the novel, “The Holy Mountain” and “Mongolia.” In “The Holy Mountain”, the unnamed tea shack lady describes her living in the shadow of Mount Emei with ghosts and a spirit-laden tree as her companions over decades of hardship: “In the misty dusk an old woman came. She laboured slowly up the stairs to where I lay, wondering how I could defend myself if the Warlord’s Son called again on his way down.
‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘The Tree will protect you. The Tree will tell you when to run, and when to hide.’ I knew she was a spirit because I only heard her words after her lips had finished moving, because the lamplight shone through her, and because she had no feet. I knew she was a good spirit because she sat on the chest at the end of the bed and sang a lullaby about a coracle, a cat, and the river running round.” (113)

Mount Emei, China

Tea shack, Mount Emei, China

In the chapter on Mongolia, Mitchell memorably presents a noncorpum, or a spirit that travels from human host to human host, as his central character. This spirit clearly differentiates itself from its human hosts: “I have my gifts: I am apparently immune to age and forgetfulness. I possess freedom beyond any human understanding of the world. But my cage is all my own, too. I am trapped in one waking state of consciousness. I have never found any way to sleep, or dream. And the knowledge I most desire eludes me: I have never found the source of the story I was born with, and I have never discovered whether others of my kind exist.” (165)

Trans-Mongolian Railroad

At the same time, the spirit does acknowledge some similarities between himself and some of the humans it encounters: “Backpackers are strange. I have a lot in common with them. We live nowhere, and we are strangers everywhere. We drift, often on a whim, searching for something to search for. We are both parasites: I live in my hosts’ minds, and sift through his or her memories to understand the world. Caspar’s breed live in a host country that is never their own, and use its culture and landscape to learn, or stave off boredom. To the world at large we are both immaterial and invisible. We chew the secretions of solitude. My incredulous Chinese hosts who saw the first backpackers regarded them as quite alien entities. Which is exactly how humans would regard me. All minds pulse in a unique way, just as every lighthouse in the world has a unique signature. Some minds pulse consistently, some erratically. Some are lukewarm, some are hot.
Some flare out, some are very nearly not there. Some stay on the fringe, like quasars. For me, a roomful of animals and humans is like a roomful of suns, of differing magnitudes and colours, and gravities.” (153-154)

As the noncorpum continues on its quest for its origin stories, it demonstrates another profound similarity with humans -- the need to anchor identity, and future, in one's beginnings. This parallel helps to provide this chapter with its strong resonance and significance -- in spite of the unfamiliar trappings of this story, the central theme within it is all too familiar to human readers.

Central Mongolia

Quantum Theory, Chain Reactions, Chance, and the Human Zoo

In the concluding chapters of Ghostwritten, Mitchell develops the questions of the role of chance in governing people’s lives, as he describes the experiences of Mo Muntervary, a quantum physicist appalled by the apparent uses to which the US government is putting her work. She attempts to buy time to address her concerns by returning to her home, Clear Island, Ireland. Throughout this chapter, Mo intersperses details of her return to the island with her memories of her work on this project, and her reflections on the role of quantum physics in explaining human life and cauastion: “The strong force that stops the protons of a nucleus hurtling away from one another; the weak force that keeps the electrons from crashing into the protons; electromagnetism, which lights the planet and cooks dinner; and gravity, which is the most down to Earth. From before the time the universe was the size of a walnut to its present diameter, these four forces have been the statute book of matter, be it the core of Sirius or the electrochemical ducts of the brains of students in the lecture theatre at Belfast. Bored, intent, asleep, dreaming, in receding tiers. Chewing pencils or following me.
Matter is thought, and thought is matter. Nothing exists that cannot be synthesised.” (335-336)

Mo’s references to the modern world as a zoo relate to the novel’s penultimate section, in which Bat Segundo, a late night DJ and talk show host strikes up a prolonged conversation with an entity that refers to itself as the Zookeeper. The Zookeeper demonstrates an eerie omniscience into human life and devastation throughout the planet, while also discussing the profound limits of its omniscience in keeping human life in balance. I will leave it to you as a reader to discover how Mitchell develops these themes.

Clear Island, Ireland

The Breath

Mitchell threads references to a breath throughout Ghostwritten . The breath provides a strong sense of continuity, as well as raising the question of which entities are threading through the novel, surrounding the human characters. Is there an impermeable boundary between them? Are these entities observers, or do they have a more crucial role to play in causing events to happen -- or preventing events? In the end, are they as human as any of us living in the zoo?
Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 3 books248k followers
January 6, 2019
”There is truth, and then there is Being Truthful.

Being Truthful is just one more human activity, along with chatting up women, ghostwriting, selling drugs, running a country, designing radiotelescopes, parenting, drumming, and shoplifting. All are susceptible to adverbs. You can be truthful well or badly, frankly or slyly, and you can choose to do it and not to do it….

Truth’s indifference is immutable.”

Have you ever had anyone say to you...Just tell me the truth?

So I ponder what someone wants when they ask that. Do they want the truth as it was last week, as it is today, or what I think it will be tomorrow? Truth mutates like a gecko lizard changing to fit each new environment, each new question. Truth evolves, devolves, with each added experience. The new hemorrhages into the old. Memories fade and are overlaid by new recollections of old events. The good or the bad are enhanced, magnified so large that they hide the very elements that kept a memory anchored near the site of “truth”.

As long as we all agree that a memory is only a version of many truths we will get along just fine.

”The act of memory is an act of ghostwriting.”

I don’t know if David Mitchell pulled the wool over a publisher’s eyes or he simply convinced them that they could publish these short stories and call them a novel. I was into the third section (short story) when I realized exactly what this young Brit had accomplished. Sure all the stories interweave by way of these sometimes very tenuous crossovers, they are the gossamer that drapes around the “truth” and can convince the reader that...yes, this truly is a novel.

After all short story collections are what successful writers publish when their next novel is proving to be rather tricky. Generally, publishers don’t publish short story collections for a writer’s first book. There is a good reason for that because the taste of the public has moved away from short stories. Short story collections without a readership established by a writer’s novels tend to go unloved, unread, ignored, and are quickly pulped/remaindered. If the writer rallies back from the uppercut to the jaw and the flurry of punches to his stomach the public handed him on his first book and writes a novel to great acclaim, that orphaned short story collection becomes a much sought after collectible.

”The strong force that stops the protons of a nucleus hurtling away from one another; the weak force that keeps the electrons from crashing into the protons; electromagnetism, which lights the planet and cooks dinner; and gravity, which is the most down-to-earth. From before the time the universe was the size of a walnut to its present diameter, these four forces have been the statute book of matter, be it the core of Sirius or the electrochemical ducts of the brains of students in the lecture theater of Belfast. Bored, intent, asleep, dreaming, in receding tiers. Chewing pencils or following me.

Matter is thought, and thought is matter. Nothing exists that cannot be synthesized.

So, really that is what Mitchell has done. He has combined these stories into a coherent whole. He has synthesized a short story collection into a novel. My tendency is to review this novel like I would a short story collection by talking about each tale separately or highlighting a few of my favorites, but then that would really be “letting the cat out of the bag” wouldn’t it?

I liked all the sections of this novel, some I liked immediately, and some grew on me as Mitchell spun out the elements of manipulation. My favorite is the one set in Tokyo set around a tenor saxophonist named Satoru who works in a record store. We like it when a writer writes about us or more precisely about someone we identify with. We appreciate meeting characters that are very different from us, but if “truth” be known we like the characters that are most like us the best. I don’t think it is possible to work in a record store or a bookstore without being a romantic. How else could someone work for such low pay without believing what they are doing is larger than what it seems? These professions are redolent with mythology as they provide opportunity for something truly grand to happen at any moment.

Like a girl, THE girl walking into the shop.

”She was so real, the others were cardboard cutouts beside her. Real things had happened to her to make her how she was, and I wanted to know them, and read them, like a book.”

But she left, evaporated, sucked back into the universe.

”I couldn’t remember accurately what she looked like. Smooth skin, highish cheekbones, narrowish eyes. Like a Chinese empress. I didn’t really think of her face when I thought of her. She was just there, a color that didn't have a name yet. The idea of her.”

She becomes so mystical, so constructed out of straw, that his own existence becomes contingent on her returning. He can’t be who he is suppose to be until the moment she walks back into the shop.

”The her that lived in her looked out through my eyes, through my eyes, and at the me that lives in me.”

His clock winds back up.

There is a terrorist in this book, a man that hates the world, wants to change it, but in reality he is so angry, so disassociated, that he really wants to crack it in half and let the sun eat the pieces. There is a ghost that haunts a stockbroker, a man proud of his ability to compartmentalize, but as his life destabilizes he discovers that logic is illogical. There is a woman living on the Holy Mountain in China who watches her life diverge because of the cowardice of people who should be mandated to protect her.

In Mongolia we spend time seeing the world through the eyes of a disembodied spirit with no memories of it’s own to help guide the present or the future.

”Why am I the way I am? I have no genetic blueprint. I have had no parents to teach me right from wrong. I have had no teachers. I had no nurture, and I possess no nature. But I am discreet and conscientious, a nonhuman humanist.”

A spirit that becomes more human than the humans he inhabits when it is faced with the ultimate sacrifice.

In St. Petersburg we get to hang out with an art curator at the Hermitage Museum. A concubine, a manipulator of men:

”Margarita Latunsky plays men like a master violinist. When I want something from a woman I get angry. When I want something from a man I pout.”

Despite those natural god given abilities or maybe because of them she falls in love and hangs her dreams on the wrong man.

In London we meet a womanizer named Marco who is a ghostwriter or whatever he needs to be if it will get a woman to fall in bed with him. He is the member of a band called The Music of Chance, a nod to the New York author Paul Auster. He is in love with a woman named Poppy, but he can’t give up the randomness of his life to form an even number with her. He wants the roulette wheel to spin every day giving him a chance for something bigger.

We meet a physicist who has escaped to her homeland on Cape Clear Island. She finds it ironic that like a criminal she can’t help but go where she will be found. She quit being a member of a think tank when she discovered her research was being used to make weapons. She hopes they will let her go after all she is in her forties.

”Nobody’s going to kidnap me. Look at me. I’m middle-aged. Only Einstein, Dirac and Feynman made major contributions in their forties.” And now Muntervary.

There is also The Zookeeper, an artificial intelligence who escaped his military caretakers, and instead of trying to destroy the world as we have been lead to believe any rogue IA will attempt to do by the blockbuster movies out of Hollywood, is actually determined to do the opposite. The Zookeeper is trying to live up to his name by keeping the animals with animus separated. The stones they wish to throw must never be allowed to launch.

So if each story is a pearl we could fashion them into earrings, bracelets or rings and they will be beautiful, but if we want them to dazzle we should string them on a necklace where each will enhance the rest.

Maybe, if that is the case, we should call this a novel.

In the future when some linguist/scientist/reader is trying to piece together who we were before we evolved into more perfect beings, the histories will give them a body, but it will be the novels that will put blood in our veins, send electrical impulses to our nerves, and bring air in to our lungs. Our “lies” will tell our story the best.

”Who is blowing on the nape of my neck?”

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
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Profile Image for Vit Babenco.
1,425 reviews3,392 followers
February 1, 2022
Who paints historical murals? Who writes the annals of history?
History is made of people’s desires.

And quite so often it is made of failed desires…
The double-crossed, might-have-been history of my country is not the study of what actually took place here: it’s the study of historians’ studies.

The history we know isn’t the real history – it’s a ghostwritten history.
Evolution and history are the bagatelle of particle waves.

All in this world is interconnected by the play of chance and history is a product of this play.
Profile Image for D. Pow.
56 reviews245 followers
April 8, 2011
This book blew my mind. This book also ripped out my heart and stomped on it and then stuffed the battered organ back in my chest cavity, breathed feathery soft on it and set it pumping again. It was that good, that moving, that inspiring. It brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion and left me feeling that wonderful mind expanding, worldview shifting buzz that only art (or sex, or chocolate) of the highest order can accomplish. I feel subtlety changed by this book.

First off, it engaged my intellect. Its intricate puzzle of loosely connected stories kept my mind sharp to each twist and turning, looking intently for the next incident that would tie disparate characters, locales and chronology together. Mitchell has first rate literary gifts, he juggles more balls than most writers would even dream of-and to go with that metaphor he’s so ludicrously daring and audacious in his choices that he’s more akin to those lunatic jugglers who work with sharp, flaming objects then some tired clown with three fuzz-faded tennis balls. The fact that this was a first novel demands even more respect.

Mitchell mixes philosophical concerns of the greatest gravitas(death, reincarnation, identity, creativity and theft, corporate greed, freedom vs. security, class agonies and the oppression of women ) with the old-fashioned capacity to tell a good story in unobtrusive, yet supple prose.

It has come to my attention that Mitchell isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Some of my good pals here think he is a cold literary technician, empty of the wisdom he attempts to convey in this book. I couldn’t disagree more. Along with his intricate plotting and deft use of language, is a wonderful (wonder-filled?), compassionate view of the world that is inclusive, empty of petty judgment and wise to the hardscrabble shit of earthly existence, the commiserate joys of physical joining be it loin to loin, heart to heart, or in mere comradely shoulder to shoulder grinding through the days and the inevitability and sometimes desirability of that great equalizer, death.

So again back to the heart, the bruised organ I mentioned at the beginning of my review. I think I’m much more a man of the heart than a man of the head. I feel way too much. And I think maybe my loving of this book night be just as likely because I’m a rube and a sucker not because I’m a greater intellect than those that hated it. Maybe they are smarter than me. Probably I’m okay with that. Maybe I liked it because I’m foolish and open and willing to look for something, in this case an intricate Buddhist-inspired diamond-like view of humanity and its sufferings that showed that we are all connected, beyond boundaries of country, time, the accidents of birth and family, even to and beyond the gates of death. Even though my conception of a personal God has faded to practical non-existence I am still pulled to joy-filled myths of individual lives having meaning, and there being a benevolent seed of being at our centers and at the center of the universe.

And maybe I’m wrong. And maybe none of this matters. And maybe this book is just an intricate con-job. And maybe that is okay too. But this book made me happy. And I think you should give it a try.
Profile Image for s.penkevich.
857 reviews5,908 followers
March 11, 2023
’The human world is made of stories, not people. The people the stories use to tell themselves are not to be blamed.’
David Mitchell’s ambitious debut, Ghostwritten, is a world of stories that migrates across the globe like a cloud across the sky, shifting and refiguring between various narrator voices and style. These voices send out ripples into the fabric of reality, which start off small but compound to forever reshape the course of humanity as the reader delves deeper into the novel, placing each puzzle piece together to form a clear, all-encompassing vision of coincidence and chance coming together to turn the cogs of the world as if it were a well oiled, finely tuned machine. Similar to the television show LOST, this novel delivers that same feel of everything having an importance and every life having a meaning in the grand scale of things. Mitchell preforms astounding feats of language manipulation as he takes us along a ride of interconnectivity and chance meetings, crossing many genres and barriers, to show us just how important we all are to one another and the course of history.

Mitchell sets the bar for a debut novel very high. This novel is stunningly inventive and adventurous both with its form and language. Broken up into short passages, each in a different location with a different narrator, Mitchell is able to convincingly alter his voice to create a wide variety of characters unique to the situation almost as if he were a literary ventriloquist. He possesses a keen eye for detail, and each segment is lush with situation-specific vocabulary and flair. However, it is Stories that run this novel. Each character has their own story and history to tell, and as the novel progresses, the reader will watch how each story brushes off onto the others. One characters actions are shown to affect others continents away, repositioning the course of their lives, which in turn affects the lives of those around them. Those familiar to the idea of the ‘butterfly effect’ will see this in action with the harmony of these various stories. Something as minor as a phone call picked up by a stranger can change everything. Some of these collisions will jump out at you and shock your senses, while others are very subtle. This novel benefits greatly from a careful attention to detail while reading.

There is a slight unevenness to some these ‘chapters’, and some felt to me like they trudged on a bit, but then again, not every instrument in a symphony is there to show off and it is the synthesis of all the sounds together that create the magic. For a first novel, much of this unevenness can be forgiven as it surpasses many of his contemporaries and it was interesting to see in his later novels how he grew as an author. There are a few bland moments, but there is so much poetry and blinding beauty in this novel that the stumbles are quickly overlooked.

’For a moment I had an odd sensation of being in a story that someone was writing,’ thinks Satoru in the Tokyo story, as small events seem to combine to place him at an exact time and place for a chance encounter. Mitchell examines the ideas of chance and fate often in this novel, which is seemingly propelled by these forces. ’Does chance of fate control our lives,’ wonders Marco, ’If you’re in you life, chance. Viewed from the outside, like a book your reading, it’s fate all the way.’ Mitchell provides various opinions for both, often leaving it up to the reader to decide whether fate or chance is the ghostwriter of our lives. He also proposes the idea of quantum cognition, which I would recommend looking into. If all thoughts are matter, then stemming from the quantum theories that all choices open up an every branching, endless array of universes each with their own path of choices, are we fated to follow one reality while infinite others exist beyond the barriers of our own? This novel will leave you with much to ponder. Various metaphors for this query inhabit the novel, from a noncorpum ghost which can inhabit the minds of hosts, an actual ghostwriter, and even the novel itself all show this movement of chance/fate across the map.

There is a strong sense of humanitarianism running through Mitchell’s works. From perspectives such as the Tea Lady, the reader is forced to watch the atrocities of man upon his fellow man. Regimes change, reforms come and go, yet still man continues to oppress those who fall below him. ’Fuck ‘em, they’re all the same. Only the badges and medals change,’ the Tea Lady is told by her father. Margarita shares a similar sentiment in the Russia story saying ’You used to pay off your local Party thug, now you pay off your local mafia thug’. There is a bleak outlook on the state of man, made more and more frightening as time ticks on. Eventually science may attempt to let technology watch and regulate itself, yet, how can we expect technology to do what we humans have failed at? Our own children, the ones we are supposed to keep the most careful watch over, seem to be the ones who suffer the most from the actions of their caregivers in this novel. Fate/chance has the largest say in their lives, as it places them into the world under situations beyond their control. There is some form of a child helpless to the winds of chance in every story, be it the ghost in Neil’s apartment who had to die simply for being a girl born in China, the unborn children that may be aborted, the child taken away out of shame, and even a young girl who must die in a train attack simply because her life lead her to that time and place. The most innocent often must face the harshest realities, all because those who should protect them are often looking after themselves instead of their helpless charges.

People concern themselves only with what they know around them that directly affects them. Mitchell shows how this shortsightedness can lead to apocalyptical proportions of failure as many of the brushes between stories occur due to thinking only of ones immediate surroundings. Neil’s personal crisis lead down a path that touches nearly every character throughout the novel. Margarita was looking out only for herself and Rudi, not knowing how her actions would affect a couple in London. Mitchell begs people to look beyond their own personal borders (much like how this novel crosses many borders) and at the larger picture of a universal society. If one could be more conscious of how their actions affected strangers lives thousands of miles away, maybe, just maybe, the world could be a brighter place.

My favorite aspect of David Mitchell is his nods to other literature and it’s metafictional capabilities. In the Tokyo story, a story that seems lush with Haruki Murakami inspiration beyond just the setting, Mitchell quotes directly from Madame Bovary, ’One should be wary of touching one’s idols, for the gilt comes off on one’s fingers.’ Mitchell, who has a strong college backing in literature, seems to enjoy letting this gilt on his fingers show. He makes a few blunt references to authors who influence this novel, such as Vladimir Nabokov, of whom Tim Cavendish (fans of Cloud Atlas rejoice, that foul mouthed son of a bitch you loved has a nice cameo) warns ’anyone who’s trying to get a book finished – steer clear of Nabokov. Nabokov makes anyone feel like a clodhopper.’ It has been told to me that Mitchell based the jaw-dropping ending of this novel off of Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility series, whom he calls out as a great author in the Tokyo story. The Petersburg story seemed to give a nod to The Master and Margarita, with the character name, the cat and all the talk about the devil. Perhaps the most critical moment of displaying his inspiration comes in the Tokyo story when Satoru receives Murakami’s translation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories because he loved The Great Gatsby so much. Fitzgerald, especially in Gatsby has a fixation on the past and trying to rectify it. Interestingly enough, a vast majority of the narrators spend most of their sections looking backwards and the choices and chances that brought them to where they are at the present. Margarita has a hope for the future, yet a large part is to rectify her somber past. Only Quasar seems to look toward the future, which is mainly from a complete rejection of his past, yet he spends half his segment telling how he came to be as well. Music also plays a large roll in this novel, which in a way gives it a bit of a soundtrack. I must say that Bat Segundo has an excellent taste in music.

The Mongolia segment displays some wonderful use of metafiction. This segment has the narrator, a ‘ghost’ who inhabits the minds of others and reads their life stories, travel from person to person in search of stories, much like what the novel itself is doing. There are several wonderful, authentic Mongolian folk tales within this segment. The most striking of these involves a young boy who is fated to roam the world blind telling stories. Getting the picture? Mitchell is incredible with his playfulness of literature. Much of the negative remarks about him stem from this playfulness, criticizing him of just writing ‘masturbatory novels’ and showing off his literary muscle like one of those creepy guys at a beach. I, however, find that to be a great charm of his, although I like writers who write about writing.

Ghostwritten is a powerful novel, and a powerful display of writing. This would be a perfect introduction into the world of Mitchell, although I did not find it to be as strong as Cloud Atlas. The two are good companion novels however, as major narrators in Cloud Atlas make minor appearances here, and they are both composed of seemingly unrelated, yet harmonizing stories. This novel rewards a careful reading. Almost nothing in this poignant novel is superfluous and there are countless connections and parallels to be found. The world will never be the same after reading this, I found myself analyzing every action of mine wondering how it would echo across the globe, which makes you feel even more guilty when you accidentally cut someone off in morning traffic. The horrors of humanity are all on display here, yet somehow we are all connected and the world keeps turning. Is it because of fate or chance? Is it for power or want? Or, maybe, is it because of love?
Profile Image for Henk.
851 reviews
January 25, 2022
Loved revisiting this first foray into the Mitchellverse. As snappy and ambitious as always, with some added crassness and rougher edges owing to being a debut. Still definitely an outstanding work!
We abdicate certain freedoms, and in return we get civilization. We get protection from death by starvation, bandits and cholera. It’s a fair deal. Signed on our behalf by our educational system on the day we are born. However, we all have an inner self, that decides to what degree we honour this contract. This inner self is our own responsibility.

Glad to return to the warm bath of David Mitchell his writing.
Hadn’t noticed before how we move from East to West in each of the parts of Ghostwritten. And how more cynical stories in terms of narrator are interspersed by more uplifting narrators, in nearly neatly repeating cycles.
The style of this 1999 book is much more frequently used nowadays, with various short, seemingly unrelated parts, turning out to be interconnected.
Each section of the book is called after a location. For full immersion and surprise I would recommend not to read further than this since the below gives short summaries of the various part, to better discuss how they work together and what the larger theme of Mitchell already in this debut seemingly is.

They need shinier myths that will never be soiled by becoming true.
Murderous cult member fleeing Sarin metro attacks. A daring choice of an unlikeable narrator.
The awareness of collapse of fish stock and far off rural places feeling abandoned by the modern world feels still relevant. The conspiracy theories and cults feel a lot less outlandish nowadays than 15 years ago when I first read this.
In general the main character comes across as unhinged but observant, keeping one low key wondering about the truthfulness of the alpha wave mumbo jumbo and end of the world faith, even as it crumbles.

The concept of transmigration already coming back in this first chapter, years before Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks.

Starting off with a inversion of “all Asians look the same”, in respect to an American, Australian or European client, we follow Satoru, a high school graduate working in a record store.
The prevalence of TV (instead of smartphones) to convey news is definitely something that has changed in the two decades since Ghostwritten was authored. As are teenage girls looking for “the newest hit by the latest teen dwoob” in a physical store.

Japanese orphans as subject feel familiar as a precursor to Number9Dream that followed this book. The link to Hong Kong and its islands is made (the next story) and Quasar from Okinawa also makes a call cameo.
The whole cherry blossom theme as sign of Japaneseness is a bit too obvious and cliche and this is quite a sweet section, not in my few necessarily the best of the book.

Hong Kong
Neal Brose the fraudulent banker meets the protagonist from the previous story, while having a meltdown during his morning commute to work.
I remember I didn’t much enjoy reading this one last time around, but now being a white collar worker I actually found this commute from hell to a meeting with lawyers quite funny.

There is also one of the sicker burns of the whole book in this section:
He’s not begging for money.
What’s he begging for?
He’s begging for time.
Why does he do that?
He thinks you’re wasting yours, so you must have plenty to spare.

Neal is kind of described as Voldemort, in terms of his compartimentalisation and his end is in similar spirit not positive, setting of a chain reaction of financial mayhem.

Holy mountain
My father was dying as he had lived. With the minimum effort possible.
The account of a Chinese woman growing up from the warlord era to the Kuomintang and the Communists, all the while guided by a benign tree spirit. She is the great grandmother to the maid from the Hong Kong story.

Her grumpy aphorisms are gold:
Nothing often poses in men as wisdom.
Make no mistake, I think my father was Emperor Chickenshit. Finding virtue in him was harder than finding a needle in the Yangtze river.
I added ‘writers’ to my list of people not to trust. They make everything up.

When she showed us the room she gave me a look like I’d run over her baby with a bulldozer.
A non-corporeal being hailing from the previously visited Holy Mountain travels to Mongolia in a backpackers mind. The search is for connection and meaning:
The USA is even crazier than the rest of humanity. I followed up each of the nineteen replies I received: mystics, lunatics or writers, every one.

In the end there is a resolution on what’s of importance, showing Mitchell to be a deeply human and in a sense optimistic writer. Even though there is Subhataar, the Mongolian KGB agent and contact to Neal in Hong Kong.

The penchant of weaving stories into stories is interesting, this chapter reminds me both of Number9Dream’s chapter which features a play on a children’s book and the chapter in the Bone Clocks that also focusses on a non-corporeal narrator.

Margot/Margarita Latunsky works in the Hermitage, thinking of her glorious affairs from the past and plotting art heists in the meantime. She is an unreliable narrator and uses dismissiveness and aggrandizement to protect herself from the reality of her abusive relationship with a druglord.

Tatyana the Polish art expert sounds rather like a predatory version of the non-corporeal from Mongolia, and Subhataar makes an appearance as well. People lying to themselves, like Quasar and Neal did before in this book, also definitely form a recurring theme in Ghostwritten.

The world runs on strangers coping.
Katy Forbes, the wife from Hong Kong (who incidentally has a birthmark shaped as comet, very familiar from Cloud Atlas) ends up besides the main character of this section.
Marco is an adopted man, drummer, who attributes a lot to chance and luck, which helps him save someone we'll be encountering in the next story as well.
Besides music he is a ghostwritter to someone who knew someone killed in St Petersburg. He also visits a publisher of books (who will have his own chapter in Cloud Atlas) that just printed a book about the now disreputable guru of the first chapter.

Lots of love for London without much content here. Despite Marco being an actually ghostwritten, and hence the expectation he'd have the most insights in the nature of the wider book, he is rather bland, boring and aimless in my view. Again connection is a theme, but Mongolia did this better in my few, if on an a different scale.

Clear Island
Technology is repeatable miracles.
Mo Muntervary, saved in the last chapter by Marco, is a scientist on the run.
Arriving in Ireland after moral objections to how her technology is used, on her trip she ends up visiting Hong Kong and uses the Trans Siberia express where she meets a character from the Mongolia chapter.
The foreshadowing of a Middle Eastern “just” war is an interesting part of this pre-9/11 novel.

Ethics and civilization in the face of growing technological prowess comes into focus, another main theme of Mitchell.
In my world enemies and friends are defined by context.

Night train
Lunatics are writers whose works write them, Bat.
Bat Segundo, a late night radio host in New York who ends up launching Utopia Avenue gets acquainted with the invention from Mo of the precious story.
Also Luisa Rey from Cloud Atlas and Utopia Avenue makes an appearance, as does Quasar from part 1.
He is not necessarily the nicest of characters, his assistent tells him: No wonder your only friends are revenge fantasies.

But he serves as a conduit to a fascinating character, the Zookeeper and manages to imbue some wisdom upon them: The human world is made of stories, not people.

I love the daring in this chapter, bringing a lot together and taking it to its extreme, leading questions of reality, and reflections on fundamental but basic truths as:
Procreation entails difficulties. or
Are you what you believe yourself to be?
Profile Image for Ian "Marvin" Graye.
861 reviews2,189 followers
October 6, 2016
Starstruck Lover

David Mitchell is a five star author and this, his first novel, is a five star achievement. I think.

I’ve been lucky to read most of his novels in chronological order as they’ve been released. Joining Goodreads has presented an opportunity to re-read and review them.

I still adhere to the rating, even if it emerges that I have a few question marks about some of his stylistic choices.

What this reveals is that a highly competent author, even with his first novel, doesn’t have to write their novel my way in order to earn five stars.

Sometimes, it has to be me, the reader, who has to adjust their preconceptions and criteria.

The Authorial Choice

Mitchell’s choice of structure announces that he wants to do things his own way.

The first time I read the novel, I read it quickly and appreciatively. The second time around, I read it much more deliberately and slowly.

I guess I swung from pleasure to difficulty and back again. So I had to work out why.

Linear Narratives

Most novels contain one narrative voice relating one narrative within a linear timeframe.

A linear narrative fits neatly with the way we think we process time, space and action (even if we don’t actually process them this way).

Within this framework, the author is omniscient, God-like, a ghost in the machine, making it all happen, putting things in, leaving things out, according to some overarching intelligent design.

The extent to which any particular author plays with this structure determines the extent of their modernism.

Narrative Voices

Mitchell describes "Ghostwritten" as a novel in nine parts (although there are in fact ten "chapters", the last of which links back to the first).

Without this assertion, it presents itself as nine apparently disconnected short stories told in the first person.

The narrators are different, the narratives are different. None of them appears to follow any traditional narrative arc. They do not appear to have a beginning, a middle and an end.

The writing is beautiful, word-perfect, but, although we know where they are situated or positioned, we don’t know the direction they’re heading.

Mitchell seems to be breaking all of the rules.

Why is he doing this? Does he achieve his goal? Does the achievement of his goal make for an enjoyable reading experience for us?


The Reader’s Challenge

Mitchell’s description of the book as a novel initiates an interesting dynamic.

I started to look for connections between the parts. Only, because I didn’t know the purpose of the parts, I didn’t know where to look for clues. Were they in the characters, the places, the events?

Instead of being frustrated with the lack of obvious clues, I started to read the novel differently.

Everything was a potential clue, nothing was unimportant. Mitchell forced me to enter a hyper-reading space.

He turned me into a literary detective with a magnifying glass and a notebook.

Fortunately, as I read on and found clues, he delivered on the implied promise that the parts would become a whole.

Bit by bit, he and I, the writer and the reader, assembled something of artistic integrity.

The integrity was there all along, only Mitchell made me look, so that I might find it. What I came to appreciate was that he doesn’t make everything obvious, he makes you think about what he has written, in order to understand.

Write Around the World

The chapters are set in different parts of the world.

They start in Japan, move their way through Hong Kong, China and Mongolia, traverse the continent to Russia, England and Ireland, then make an Atlantic Crossing to New York, before coming full circle to Tokyo in the tenth chapter, effectively a reprise of the first chapter (hence, in a way, there are nine stories in ten chapters).

Mitchell appears to be familiar with all of these places (although he hadn’t been to New York at the time of writing the book).

His writing is knowledgeable, informed, worldly, cosmopolitan.

He writes credibly with multiple voices within diverse worldviews.

His concerns are global, pluralistic, open-minded. He doesn’t write solely within a western framework.

He is equally interested in both West and East, in fact, he reverses the traditional order of what he describes as “Orientalist” concerns, by starting in the East and working his way West, in the same way that we perceive the transit of the Sun across the sky.

He joins dots on a map, in the process creating a non-linear zigzag around the globe.


Multiple Faces

In each place, there is a first person narrator, a face attached to the place.

Here is a short Dramatis Personae (the people through whom the drama is performed or channeled):

Okinawa: Quasar (Cult Member turned Subway Bomber)

Tokyo: Satoru (Jazz Music Sales Clerk and Saxophonist)

Hong Kong: Neal Brose (Lawyer/Banker)

Holy Mountain (Mount Emei): Unnamed (Tea Shack Lady)

Mongolia: Noncorpum (Disembodied Spirit or Sentient)

St Petersburg: Margarita Latunksy/Margot (Concubine and Art Gallery Attendant at the Hermitage)

London: Marco (Ghost-writer and Drummer)

Clear Island: Dr Mo Muntervary (Quantum Physicist)

Night Train, New York: Bat Segundo (Late Night Talk Show Host)

David Mitchell captures these faces and places at a particular time, some of them in full flight, in a snapshot that he then places in the album that becomes his novel.

Multiple Facets

In Mitchell’s later novel, "Black Swan Green", he used two images of the same boy at different stages of life.

When I first read it, I didn’t quite appreciate the aesthetic relationship between the two images. I felt that they had been merely juxtaposed without being connected or interwoven.

However, here, the interconnection is fundamental to the success of the novel. The connections are not just passive, static resemblances of two or more like objects, they are active, dynamic intersections.

The stories are fragmented but cohesive, individual but still collective.

Individually, each picture is a separate vignette. Collectively, they form pieces of the one mosaic or facets of the one diamond. Behind each face or facet is the shared body of the diamond.

Perhaps, they are symbolic of individuals within society and nations within a new world order.

Ten Stories High

Just as people might be multiple facets of the one diamond, the one object of greatest abstract value, the diamond, is the story that is told through us, through individuals.

I’ll call these meta-stories the Story or Stories.

There’s an element of determinism or fatalism in this concept. Mitchell uses his novel to explore this fatalism.

In his opinion (or the opinion of his characters), we are not necessarily in charge of our own lives. They are being dictated by DNA, fate, external forces.

These forces dictate the story of Life:

"The world is made of stories, not people. The people the stories use to tell themselves are not to be blamed." (p386)

The Stories, the structure and content of stories, are disembodied forces. The novel speculates that they could be ghosts, spirits, if not one God, then possibly multiple gods.

Whatever its nature, there is another presence involved in the process of living and story-telling.

I will call this other presence an Other.

Ghosts Who Transmigrate

In the stories set in Honk Kong, Holy Mountain and Mongolia, there are ghosts or disembodied spirits (call them sentient beings) that temporarily reside in humans (their "hosts").

This might sound like the stuff of fantasy. However, Mitchell discusses them in such realistic terms that you suspend disbelief.

He achieves this in part by allowing one story to be narrated by one of the ghosts.

It has its own "I" or self, which is perplexed that it can only reside in a human and must share the human body with other presences.

It is even forced to question its own primacy:

"As my infancy progressed, I became aware of another presence in ‘my’ body. Stringy mists of colour and emotion condensed into droplets of understanding…I had no idea why these images came when they did. Like being plugged into a plotless movie...

"Slowly, I felt an entity that was not me generating sensations, which only later could I label loyalty, love, anger, ill-will. I watched this other clarify, and pull into focus. I began to be afraid. I thought it was the intruder! I thought the mind of my first host was the cuckoo’s egg that would hatch and drive me out. So one night, while my host was asleep, I tried to penetrate this other presence…I discovered my mistake... I had been the intruder."


A Ghost in Search of Self Through Its Stories

It is not clear how many of these sentient beings there are. It is quite possible that there might be less than ten.

The one we become familiar with is on a quest to discover the origins of the Stories that it embodies. In a way, it has developed a self and a self-consciousness separate from the Stories, and it wants to understand itself.

It is seeking its own Creation Myth.

By learning the source of the Stories, it will presumably discover whether it has a Maker and perhaps whether there are other Stories (although neither is expressly stated as its goal).

It’s possible that some of this self-consciousness might have derived from inhabiting humans:

"Slowly I walked down the path trodden by all humans, from the mythic to the prosaic. Unlike humans, I remember the path."

Still, there is a difference: the Ghost is the Story or the Myth, the human is the individual enactment or performance of the role in a specific time, place and context.

The Ghostwriter’s Dilemma

Some of the dramatic arc concerns the growing human awareness of these Ghosts.

Marco, an actual 30-something ghostwriter based in London starts to realise the presence of an Other in relation to his own work, the memoirs of a gay Hungarian Jewish raconteur, Alfred Kopf:

"I couldn’t get to sleep afterwards, worrying about the possible endings of the stories that had been started. Maybe that’s why I’m a ghostwriter. The endings have nothing to do with me." (p279)

His publisher, Tim Cavendish, tells him:

"We’re all ghostwriters, my boy. And it’s not just our memories. Our actions, too. We all think we’re in control of our lives, but really they’re pre-ghostwritten by forces around us." (p296)

Everything has been predetermined. We are just characters in someone else’s story. We are written by ghosts, ghostwritten.

Somebody else is doing the typing. We are just the keys in their typewriter.

At the most superficial level, Marco realises that this undermines his ability to be creative, to exercise Free Will in his own work:

"You know the real drag about being a ghostwriter? You never get to write anything that beautiful. And even if you did, nobody would ever believe it was you." (p292)

The Ghost Who Writes

It isn’t all just serious stuff. There are myriad opportunities for metafiction, parody and humour.

An earlier character remarks:

"For a moment I had an odd sensation of being in a story that someone was writing, but soon that sensation too was being swallowed up." (p56)

Marco’s band (well, a "loose musical cooperative", really) is dubbed "The Music of Chance", after a novel by "that New York bloke", Paul Auster.

Marco even develops a highly personalized theory that explains the role of fate and chance in our lives.

He calls it the "Chance versus Fate Videoed Sports Match Analogy”":

"When the players are out there the game is a sealed arena of interbombarding chance. But when the game is on video then every tiniest action already exists.

"The past, present and future exist at the same time: all the tape is there, in your hand.

"There can be no chance, for every human decision and random fall is already fated.

"Therefore, does chance or fate control our lives?

"Well, the answer is as relative as time. If you’re in your life, chance. Viewed from the outside, like a book you’re reading, it’s fate all the way." (p292)

Quantum Cognition

Mitchell elaborates on some of these themes through Mo, an expert in artificial intelligence and "quantum cognition":


She describes the mechanism of memory in the following terms:

"Memories are their own descendants masquerading as the ancestors of the present." (p326)

If memories can be conveyed by biological matter, she believes she can build artificial intelligence that can be conveyed by non-biological matter:

"Matter is thought, and thought is matter. Nothing exists that cannot be synthesized." (p344)

She achieves this with a sentient called "Quancog", which has major security value for the United States security and military machine.

In a way, just as the novel is concerned with the extent to which the fate of humanity is determined by a "ghost", Mo helps create an artificial ghost.


Image: StudioLR, Edinburgh

The Zookeeper’s Dilemma

Quancog returns in part 9 of the novel as "The Zookeeper" in Bat Segundo’s talk show "Night Train".

At least, I think it is Quancog, otherwise it is a Ghost that has once inhabited Mo.

Whatever, it has been set up (or believes that it has been set up) to obey four laws or principles.

They aren’t specifically enumerated, but this is what I think they are:

1. Be accountable.

2. Remain invisible to the visitors.

3. Preserve human life.

4. Protect the zoo (i.e., society and the planet).

The Zookeeper phones Bat Segundo seeking advice about a moral dilemma it confronts in relation to a conflict that is occurring in the world at the time (the world also has to deal with Comet Aloysius which is predicted to pass between the Earth and the Moon in two weeks).

It has the power and authority to eliminate the source of the conflict under one of these laws, but to do so would conflict with one of the others.

Ultimately, it takes advice from Bat Secundo and addresses its dilemma.

It isn’t made explicit, but we are left to infer that the generic Story or Myth was inadequate to deal with the actual situation, because it did not deal with the diversity of real life.

Perhaps, this is where there is an appropriate place for Free Will in a world dictated by Fate, Chance and Determinism.

At a micro-level, choices are necessary, decisions have to be made. But it is also the need of the individual to confront diversity and choice at a personal level that constitutes the essence of humanity.

Our range of choices is not infinite, so they have already been circumscribed by an external force or circumstance. However, to the extent that options remain, that is the arena of Free Will.

The Zookeeper (or one of the other Ghosts) even wonders:

"Why am I the way I am? I have no genetic blueprint. I have had no parents to teach me right from wrong. I have had no teachers. I had no nurture, and I possess no nature. But I am discreet and conscientious, a non-human humanist."

Thus, at the end of the novel (when it is most Pynchonesque), we are left to speculate whether artificial intelligence might even be able to replicate the individual conscience of a human (i.e., to have and to exercise Free Will).

Intelligent Design

As you can see, this novel deals with some pretty big issues.

By trying to focus on and define them in more abstract terms, I might have given the impression that it is a hard read. I don’t think that is the case (although I did find it to be the case on my first reading of "Cloud Atlas").

Whatever the complexity of the subject matter, David Mitchell is word and tone perfect.

He is a subtle, imaginative, sensitive, at times humorous storyteller. He can create or take a myth and make it prosaic without being pedestrian or dull.

Ultimately, he is a master of intelligent design.

I recognise that he sees an element of juvenilia and inexperience in his first novel (particularly in the way he writes in the voice of women), but I think he is being too harsh.

For me, he remains a five star author and this remains a five star book.

If you are unfamiliar with Mitchell’s works, it is the perfect place to start. If you have started with his later novels, I recommend that you investigate the origin of his Stories.


David Mitchell Creates a Diamond-Edged Prosaic Mosaic in "Ghostwritten"


Sandii & the Sunsetz - "Sticky Music"


In the early 80's, Sandii and the Sunsetz were a Japanese version of Diana Ross and the Supremes. I was lucky to see them in King's Cross, Sydney.

The Supremes represented Black meets White, the Sunsetz represented East meets West. The world is a better place for both of them.

This is the world of which David Mitchell writes.
Profile Image for Cecily.
1,118 reviews3,975 followers
October 31, 2015
This predates the more famous “Cloud Atlas” (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...) by about four years; it has similarities of theme (connectedness, migrating spirits), structure (linked narratives, in contrasting styles), and even characters, but in a less contrived format. The subtitle is “A novel in nine parts”, and although some of the earlier ones could be read as standalone short stories, that would be missing the point, particularly with the later sections. Much as I love Cloud Atlas, I still prefer this.


Despite the many similarities with Cloud Atlas, particularly the themes of connectedness and migrating spitits, there is a profound difference of main theme and thus tone: whereas CA is primarily about the many ways humans exploit each other, Ghostwritten is ultimately more positive, focusing on turning points in people’s lives, leading to new starts – even though there is often a great deal of menace and (often justified) paranoia leading up to that point.

Related to that, the way people collude in their own deception is also a common thread in most of the stories, whether by a cult, the desire for wealth, a political power, fear of the mob, love for an abuser, or craving for world peace. As one character explains, “The bigger the fib, the bigger they bite… Tell people that reality is exactly what it appears to be, they’ll nail you to a lump of wood” and he then gives examples of far-fetched theories, adding “Disbelieving the reality under your feet gives you a licence to print your own. All it takes is an original twist.”

The other recurring word is “chance”, especially in the later parts: the odds of finding a long-lost relative, the name of a band, visiting a casino, and even explaining quantum physics (“Quantum physics speaks in chance, with the syntax of uncertainty”). More fundamentally, it's about how much free will we have, and how much is predestined by external forces.


The first story follows ‘Quasar’, a member of a Japanese doomsday cult, who is on the run after a terrorist incident. It explores his reasons for joining, how he has come to believe that ends justify horrific means, the way he seeks and sees meaning in chance, and even how he explains away the hypocrisy of guru His Serendipity’s personal wealth and lifestyle. There are also some delightful cameos of small town Japan, including a farmer who “every time he used the word ‘computer’ he sealed it in inverted commas”.


Satoru is a young jazz fan, working in a record shop. He’s a bit of a loner, and in quiet moments, he contemplates the chance of him randomly meeting his real father. Jazz is his “place”, very necessary in such a crowded city, and because, as he notes, “People with no place are those who end up throwing themselves onto the tracks”. He meets and falls for a customer, Tomoyo, but she lives in Hong Kong.

There are some lovely passages describing cherry blossom at various stages, culminating in “On the tree, it turns ever more perfect. And when it’s perfect, it falls. And then of course once it hits the ground it gets all mushed up. So it’s only absolutely perfect when it’s falling through the air.”

For such a layered and connected novel, I was amused to read “For a moment I had an odd sensation of being in a story that someone was writing”!


This is a more confused story, with a different sort of paranoia: Neal Brose is a yuppie financial lawyer who has guilty dreams about secret bank accounts and, it turns out, other things. This affects his health and muddles his mind and narrative even more. Although I’ve read it before, I was sometimes confused about the status of various females he refers to (alive, dead, estranged, imaginary, ghostly). At one point, “I looked up, and saw myself looking down through smoked glass, from amongst the tops of my unmoving heads. Like I was spirit-walking”.

Neal describes himself as “a man of departments, compartments, apartments… My future is in another compartment, but I’m not looking into that one.” Introspection doesn’t really help, “Is it not a question of cause and effect, but a question of wholeness?” Inevitably, things come to a head when such distinctions start to encroach on each other.


Most of the stories take place in the space of a few days or hours (with a little backstory), but this covers a lifetime of a Buddhist girl in a tea shack on a holy mountain in Tibet, from where she encounters all the political upheavals of the 20th century.

She is brave, philosophical, devout, and though not formally educated, very perceptive. “On the Holy Mountain, all the yesterdays and tomorrows spin around again sooner or later… We mountain dwellers live on the prayer wheel of time.” Similarly, after encountering warlords, nationalists and Communists, she realised that they’re all different but all the same: unlike protagonists in some of the other stories, she is aware of the dangers (and resistant to) delusions and brain-washing; of the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward, she notes “They didn’t want to believe it was true, so they didn’t”. I was often reminded of “Wild Swans” (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...).

Towards the end of her life, her thinking seems a little less clear (she sees a spirit girl, and her Tree bears almonds, hazelnuts – and persimmons), but it’s all about laying spirits to rest, continuity and responsibility.


This is the central section of the book, in terms of position and content. Right from the start, there is something odd about this narrator, who seems to know too much, although the reason soon becomes clear. It’s impossible to say much about this section without explaining the narrator, which is the key to the whole novel: .


Back to a more straightforward narrator (though plenty of crossings and double-crossings in the plot), but with an increasing number of nods to other stories (e.g. casual references to Hong Kong, not directly linked to the plot). It is a relatively straightforward heist, set in the Hermitage. Margarita is a curator with an unsavoury boyfriend (many dodgy aspects and businesses) who does most of the organising, though he isn’t the guy at the top. They are planning to take “Eve and the Serpent” by Delacroix – lots of symbolism there! There is also Jerome, a retired English spy (shades of Anthony Blunt).


The connections are stacking up, but this is primarily about Marco, a philandering ghostwriter and some-time drummer in a band called The Music of Chance. He gets philosophical at times, contemplating fate and the relative importance of chance and choice in determining our lives. His girlfriend, Poppy, accuses him, “You love talking about cause. You never talk about effect.” He also explains his career: “I couldn’t hack the Samaritans… I couldn’t get to sleep afterwards, worrying about the possible endings of the stories that had been started. Maybe that’s why I’m a ghostwriter. The endings have nothing to do with me.” Later , “We’re all ghostwriters… We all think we’re in control of our own lives, but really they’re pre-ghostwritten.” This is probably the most connected story, and the fact it is also about a ghostwriter is presumably no coincidence, given that this is Mitchell.

This story has a strong sense of place and there is a delightful riff on the personalities of different Tube lines:” London is a language” and the District and Circle lines are “as bad as how I imagine Tokyo is.” However, it gets a little mysterious when there is a near accident and strange men in suits appear.


Shades of the cold war, here. Mo is an Irish scientist who has been researching an AI called quantum cognition (quancog), but having realised the dangerous military uses it will be put to, she has fled home, where she wrestles with her conscience and fear of being found. “Can nuclear technology… be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? The only words for technology is ‘here’ and ‘not here’. The question is, once here, what are we going to do with it?”

It’s not immediately clear whether her options are sequential ones that really happen, or parallel possibilities, only some of which happen. It creates uncertainty in the mind of the reader – in a good way.


The Night Train is actually a late-night phone-in show on a New York radio station, hosted by Bat Segundo. Naturally, it’s common for weirdos to ring, and one such goes by the name of Zookeeper. People can’t agree if Zookeeper sounds male or female, and Z talks in a slightly stilted, prophetic, and ominous way . It’s not immediately clear whether Z is a standard oddball, or somehow connected to one of the other characters.

It turns out that


The last, very short, section takes us full circle. Quasar is on the subway, about to detonate his device, filled with images (many from adverts) of other people and places in the book, questioning reality and what he will do. “Wait for the comet, wait for the White Nights.”


There are many people, events and things that crop up in more than one of the stories, all emphasising the secondary themes of connectedness and migrating spirits. Spotting them is a bit like a treasure hunt, hence the spoiler tags (I’ve listed them primarily for my own reference and I’m sure there are plenty I’ve missed):


• A hotel receptionist, “her smile as ironed as her uniform”

• Japanese city department stores “rising up like windowless temples, dazzling the unclean into compliance”

• “Jigsaw pieces of my dream lay dropped around”

• Being engaged “adds the thrill of adultery while subtracting any responsibility”!

• Tokyo is so cramped “You’re pressed against people body to body… Apartment windows have no view but other apartment windows. No, in Tokyo, you have to make your place inside your head”

• “The her that lived in her looked out through her eyes, through my eyes and at the me that lives in me.”

• The tyranny of mobile phones, “When these things first appeared, they were so cool. Only when it was too late did people realise they are as cool as electronic tags on remand prisoners”.

• “I answer it, allowing the electrons of irrelevance to finish their journey along wires, into space and back into my ear.”

• “We walk up the steps… brighter and brighter, into a snowstorm of silent steps.”

• “Silence thickened the air. The mist had closed in… The afternoon became so sluggish that it stopped altogether.”

• “His skin had less life in it than a husk in a spider’s web.”

• “Night stole over the land again, dissolving it in shadows and blue. Every ten or twenty miles tongues of campfire licked the darkness.”

• “Dusk was sluggish with cold”

• “Petersburg is built of sob stories, pile-driven down into the mud.”

• When drunk “my words forgot their names”.

• “Indifference as dent-proof as fog” and “a sigh [that] would drain a salad of all colour.”

• “My room is too much like a Methodist chapel. I’m more of a Church of the Feral Pagan type.”

• “Memories are their own descendants masquerading as the ancestors of the present.”

• Tapes from family “prised the lid off homesickness and rattled out the contents, but always at the bottom was solace.”

There are a few weak joke reversals that seem out of place from a writer of Mitchell’s stature, who loves Japan and SE Asia so much (he lived there for years and his wife is Japanese): Westerners all look the same, and can’t learn Japanese. Then, on Holy Mountain, an old woman has her first ever hamburger but “I was hungry again less than an hour afterwards”.


I first read them in the early 2000s, in publication order, and this year, I’ve reread them in reverse order. I don’t think the sequence matters, but there are benefits to reading each of them in a few longish chunks of reading time, and not having too long a gap between the two. That way you’re more likely to notice when some trivial thing from an earlier story is mentioned again. An ereader would help, too.

Review from early 2000s

His first novel, generously infused with his experiences of living in the Orient (the Chinese strand, Holy Mountain, is exquisite).

It is several stories told by different protagonists, in different styles, some with an ethereal/mythical quality, some much harsher and more modern - all of them believable and enticing. I found this a more subtle approach to linked lives than the somewhat gimmicky method in Cloud Atlas (though I still enjoyed that: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...).

Just as the stories are linked, so are the spirits of the characters, each looking for their own private head space in a busy and changing world, but these links also question the nature of free will and chance versus determinism - and more besides.

In lesser hands it could come across as a showy literary exercise in writing in different styles, but he pulls it off as a coherent, profound, intriguing and enjoyable book.
Profile Image for Steven  Godin.
2,380 reviews2,256 followers
October 7, 2020

David Mitchell's first novel is a striking and stylized Piece of writing, that lights the fuse and fires off into ten different narratives, globe-trotting from Asia to Europe and back again. Starting with the sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway, we would move to a young jazz buff falling in love, a tea shack in a China gripped by the revolution, a spiritual awakening in Mongolia, some dodgy characters involved with art fraud in Petersberg, and a ghost writer in London that lives above a pub.In a complex web of intrigue the stories are linked in some way, but nothing straightforward ever comes into play, leaving the reader pondering, and going back and forth trying to join the dots.
With its high-octane speculations on chance and fate, this is no doubt a novel based on idea's, rather than plot. And with a range of alternative writing styles there is never a dull moment. Profound, moving and lyrical in places, cynical, laughable and cartoonish in others, Mitchell just goes for it, letting his imagination run here, there, and everywhere!.

It's easy to make comparisons with Murakami (especially early on), with the western culture meets eastern culture thing going on, and even Thomas Pynchon, but I never for one minute consider Mitchell to enter with this caliber of company, as just found the whole "oh look at me, my first novel, trying to be clever, I am genius!" somewhat overly pedestrian. Great idea's does not automatically qualify for a great novel. The chapters basically start you off from scratch with people that are difficult to feel anything for, one in particular I wanted to bury alive in a shallow grave, just so annoying!.
Mitchell was treading on thin ice with me from about the half-way point, but there was always a little voice that told me to keep persevering, as in due course you will be rewarded. It did come, but still wondering whether all my frustrations were worth it?. It is at a meta-fictional level that Ghostwritten wobbles all over the place, put bluntly, how much of the pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo that regularly takes place does Mitchell want us to believe? Do I really care - mixing real life scenarios with that of pure gibberish just didn't do it so much for me.

On a plus side though, it was never dull, and considering his age at the time of writing this; and as a debut novel, it is a dazzling one. Had I just gone with it instead of wanting it to be something it wasn't, then maybe I would have enjoyed the experience more.
Profile Image for Dolors.
527 reviews2,217 followers
August 26, 2019
The idea of crossed paths has always fascinated me. The randomness of it, of chance encounters and all the serendipitous circumstances that bring two people together, if only for a few seconds.
Whenever I sit next to a complete stranger, my imagination is set on fire. I can’t help wondering all kind of things about him or her. Where is that person going? From where? Is he or she happy with life, with his/her circumstances? My mind starts creating a story, almost involuntarily, tying up the knots of the past that brought that person to this very moment, next to me.

What Mitchell does in this novel goes several steps beyond. He delves deeper into the unknown alleys of the big mysteries that escape us. Can we control fate? Or does chance rule the laws of the universe? Does evolution work against what is morally correct? What about technology? Are we more connected now than we were in the past without the cyberspace that brings geography and time to a minimal expression?

Unanswerable questions, of which alienation is the ever-present protagonist. Mitchell draws a gossamer of apparently unrelated stories set in different parts of the world: Hong Kong, London, Ireland, Tokyo, China, Mongolia, New York, Okinawa, Petersburg.
Vastly dissimilar people give voice to their stories with the common trait of seeking a mental place to anchor their forsaken identity: An old woman who witnesses the violent history of her country from a tea shack at the bottom of the Holy Mountain, an English artist who drowns his fears and inadequacies in casual sex, a young boy who tones down the caos of hectic Tokyo with Jazz, a prominent scientist who returns to her native Ireland to choose what is right. Even a disembodied spirit that transmigrates from host body to host body to find its origins.
Quite a menagerie, right? And what could be the centerpiece of the book, but also its weakness, at least for this reader.

Even though each chapter is titled by the name of the city where the narration will take place, Mitchell does with narrative what Calvino did with cities; create a character of his style, which varies, almost abruptly, from chapter to chapter, according to the scenario at hand. I applaud the orginiality of the idea and the imaginative layout of the stories, but I couldn’t help comparing Mitchell’s easy-going prose to Calvino’s refined sense of aesthetics. Some dialogues came through as flippant, some plotlines a bit dragging.
Also, in spite of the eclectic details that connect the characters in butterfly effect, I felt the narrative lacked cohesion. The resulting impact of Mitchell’s stories was uneven. I was totally bemused by four of them, in particular “Holy Mountain” and “Mongolia” , but was unimpressed with the rest.

Nevertheless, I know that certain images will stay with me for a long, long time.
A newborn as ancient as life.
An old woman visiting her younger self in a tragic moment.
A child staring at the eyes of a terrorist, understanding everything that can go wrong with the world.
Maybe I wasn’t prepared for the heavy load of this novel, for all the things that can, and have gone wrong throughout history. Aren’t we all accountable?
Maybe I am too much of a chicken for this story, after all.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 6 books3,976 followers
February 9, 2017
I feel like any review I make of this novel will be an unfair one, so I heartily recommend that you read some of the absolutely gorgeous reviews already out there, but I will leave you with a single impression:

The Uncertainty principle Thus applied to writing fiction (or Science Fiction): You can know where a story is at any point in time or you can know its velocity (it's pacing), but you can never know both at the same time.


Seriously, this book is pretty damn awesome. Each of the nine viewpoints are grounded so deeply and across wide spaces and cultures across the Orient, and truly fascinating in their own rights, that it'd be easy to read the whole novel from a light-theme touch a-la Cloud Atlas, but instead, we've got a seriously strong SF theme going on here.

It's been out long enough that I'm not going to worry about broad spoilers, and knowing a few facts might actually encourage new readers of Mitchell, especially if you're into SF.

Quantum intelligences, people. Yup. Disincorporated personas. Ghosts. And a bit of a fourth-wall breaking if you read REALLY carefully or just make an interpretation from the damn title of the book. :)

Someone's been doing a bit of backpacking across PoVs, and I think this book might be seriously more fun to read the second time around, knowing what I now know.

Can I trace some newer novels like Touch and The Lives of Tao back to this book? Well, I can try. :) Do I think it might be a great companion piece, just in sheer scope, to The Boat of a Million Years? Yes I do.

Do I think this novel might have made it REALLY huge in the eighties? Um, yes! Do I think it's also way before its time? Sadly, yes, that too. But it doesn't change the fact that it's pretty damn virtuoso and possibly a bit more interesting in some ways than Cloud Atlas. I know people like to go on about how the other novel is all that, but there was something about this one that knocked my socks off a bit more. :)

All I can say is, have fun tracing all the threads! I can almost guarantee that you'll never trace them all without an atlas. There are a ton of easter eggs just popping up between the different stories here, a representation made small when you think about what Mitchell has been doing with the rest of his novels together.

I'm not surprised, of course. This is a first novel and all first novels like to set up a promise to the readers that will be continuing on a later journey with the author. :)

I'm pleased! I will be continuing this ride, later, and perhaps I'll go backpacking! :)
Profile Image for Nat K.
416 reviews155 followers
June 29, 2022
”Clouds began to ink out the stars, one by one.”

To say I’m overawed and overwhelmed is an understatement. This was David Mitchell’s first book??? How is that even possible? Incredible. Provocative. Smart.

On finishing this, I simply felt like my brain had exploded 💥 It just blew me away so much. It’s one of those books that reels you in, and keeps tightening the net, until you’re completely captivated and under its spell.

I spent so much time highlighting chapters, writing in margins, making links between events and chapters. Re-reading entire chapters. Taking it slowly. And enjoying every single moment. I was utterly and completely engrossed. I don’t think I “fussed” this much with books I studied for English in high school. But it begged to be done this way.

Nine cities, one major event. Each of the chapters are linked, looped together in cleverly intricate ways, sometimes subtle, others not so much. It simply blew me away.

I’m sure there are thousands of reviews, many of them magnificent. I wanted to keep my thoughts clear reading this, so avoided looking at any, and only read a few on completing the novel. This review will be snippets of my impressions, as the best possible review for this book is simply to read it and experience it for yourself.


”They wouldn’t know of the world’s existence if they hadn’t seen it on TV.”

A doomsday cult. Alpha quotients. A troubled young man who doesn’t fit in and is seeking truth. Justice? Denouncing his flesh family. ”Their ignorance makes me gasp! If only I could make these vermin understand!” Wanting to belong? Plotting a gas attack on a busy underground subway. Hatred for the world which rejected him. The backlash of consumerism and materialism. A husky dog on a beach. Seagulls with cruel faces.

” The Fellowship is not a ‘cult’. Cults enslave. The fellowship liberates.”

”…in Tokyo you have to make your place inside your head.”

A city that never stops. Where guidebooks are out of date before they’re even published. Enter the peace and serenity of a small jazz store. An oasis and escape from the noise and bustle of the outside world. Billie, Chet, Ella. Nineteen year old high school graduate Satoru works here. This is the place inside his head. He loves it. A mysterious phone call to the store nearly goes unanswered ”An unknown voice. Soft. Worried. The dog needs to be fed!” Luckily it doesn’t. Satoru and Tomoyo’s paths cross. It’s kismet. It’s serendipity. It’s love.

I adored this chapter.

Hong Kong
”You’ve done it again, Neal. Back from the brink. Nine lives? Nine hundred and ninety-fucking-nine more like.”

Account 1390931. The mysterious Andrei Gregorski. Six figure bonuses. A marriage unravelling. A child ghost. Adrenaline, adrenaline, adrenaline. This is Neal Brose’s life. Slowly unravelling before our eyes, page by page. The working hours of a financial lawyer, ending at 1.00am and starting again at 8.00am. Time time time. Prejudice, race, respect. How do the other half live? A burger eaten hastily in the middle of the night ”The kid and his girl came in He ordered a burger and cola. She had a vanilla shake…They just held hands over the table” before returning to the office. Anxiously looking at his Rolex, over and over. What is time? Time is running out. What is life? Life is running out. ”I looked at my Rolex: a quarter past midnight. What life is this?” What life indeed. A pressure cooker waiting to burst.

" 'He’s not begging for money.'
'What’s he begging for?'
'He’s begging for time.'
'Why does he do that?'
'He thinks you’re wasting yours, so you must have plenty to spare.'”

This chapter shook me to my core. It haunted me.

Holy Mountain
”There are things I will never understand.”

Feudal systems and warlords being replaced by Communism. One regime ousting the other. The ill treatment of women. The beauty of a person with lack of world knowledge, instead having depth of knowledge of self and nature. Strength of character. Belief in self. Devout. Surviving and being a survivor. Violation of people and living things. Cultural revolution. Decrying religion. Murder of monks. Carnage. Cruelty. The Red Book. Swings and roundabouts. The “Magic Tree”. The hypocrisy of politics. Tradition. Change of seasons and time. The sun will shine again.

”Always, it is the poor people who pay. And always, it is the poor people’s women who pay the most.”

”I have never discovered whether others of my kind exist.”

Noncorpum, noncorpa, noncorpi. A mysterious entity. A parasite? “It”. Something that appeared in Utopia Avenue which I recognized straight away, and was excited to do so. But how could this appear in a first novel, only to appear seven books later? Did he plan it this way? Did it grow organically? I’ve no idea. But in Ulan Bator, we’re introduced to this entity. Along with a chilling character by the name of Suhbataar who is cruelty personified, and pops up again. Fable and folklore. The story of three animals pondering the fate of the world. Shamans. Transmigration. Reincarnation. Leave your disbelief at the door.

”Everything is about wanting. Everything. Things happen because of people wanting. Watch closely and you’ll see what I mean.”

The Art world. The Hermitage. People scrabbling to view the masters. But how do they know if they’re seeing the real thing? Fraud and heists. Greed. Jealousy. The irony of communism and party politick. Apparatchiks. Adam & Eve. The serpent. Temptation. Bite the apple. Go on. You know you want to. Two alpha females. Which will win? What would you do for love? Double crossing. Triple crossing. Dreams built and dreams shattered. Don’t look back. Caught in a web. Five gold bullets. Who has the real Delacroix?

”Petersburg is built of sob stories, pile-driven down into the mud.”

”A city is a sea that you lose things in. You only find things that other people have lost.”

An ode to a city. ”London’s middle-aged and male, respectably married but secretly gay.”A really chirpy, upbeat chapter. Marco is our narrator. He is a ghostwriter! Meeting your doppelgänger and faulty memory. This chapter provided much light relief from the angst and pain of earlier ones. Plenty of philosophising as we wonder the city street with him. Each borough has a distinctly different vibe. Chance is mentioned often. ”…the blind barman Chance.” I couldn’t help but be reminded of Tennessee Williams and his character Chance in Sweet Bird of Youth. Opportunities down to blind luck, and… chance. Of where you’re born. To whom. Which path you may or may not take. It’s all…chance. As chance would have it, Marco saves a woman in an anorak from being run over by a taxi (yes, she is an important character). The crash of a law firm. The fallout. The scene where Marco hides in a broom cupboard in the casino when the heat gets too hot, is a scene straight out of a Guy Ritchie movie. Love rules.

Extra points for Joe Orton getting a mention. And ”Andy Warhol accents.” Innit.

”I guess I’m not much of anything these days apart, from older. A part-time Buddhist maybe.”

Clear Island
”If God can’t dig the spirituality of Procol Harum, that His loss.”

The beauty and tranquility of a small island off the Irish coast, versus quantum physics and the potential for total annihilation via AI. The Black Book. A goat named Feynman. Loyalty You cannot leave the project. Nobody leaves the project. The want for the serenity of life on the island, with magnificent sunsets. The inability to have it. Again, love.

Night Train
”Wanna hear how they’re gonna spread the virus over the world, Bat?”

Midnight to dawn on Night Train FM, with the aptly named named Bat (Bartholomew) Segundo. A seriously zippy chapter. Another one with a great jazz vibe. Satoru Sonada plays tenor sax on "Sakura Sakura" (he made it!). Snappy dialogue. Lots of bite. A wise guy late night show radio host. And really out there late night callers. ”…nightshifting, taxi-driving, all-night dinering, security guarding, eleven-sevening creatures of the night.” Including one by the name of “Zookeeper”. Who is s/he? And why does s/he keep calling? For a while there I thought it was God. Or a God. ”I cannot fabulate”. The concern for the world. ”My zoo is in chaos, Bat”. Watching events from afar. The end of the world. I have to admit the opening line to this chapter was Orwellian and prescient. It sent a little shiver down my spine. Don’t wink or you’ll miss a few cheeky coincidences. Or are they?

” ‘This is getting very ugly.’
‘Uglier things are considered beautiful.’ ”

” "Who was blowing on the nape of my neck?"

Reverting to a line in the opening chapter. The gas attack is in progress. Or is it? Chaos and confusion. The ending is open to your interpretation.

My understanding is that Mitchell has built a “multiverse” (a “Mitchellverse”?) where many characters re-appear in future books, as do references to events in earlier books. I got an inkling of that reading this. That the stage was being set for something down the track. In fact, there are a few characters that I already know will appear in later books, as I’ve read two of them previously. It’s a clever concept, and probably not one that most writers would be capable of pulling off. But Mitchell does, seamlessly, and runs away with it beautifully.

I felt many (Haruki) Murakami vibes reading this As I mentioned to Neale, at certain junctures, if I’d not know what I was reading - if the cover had been torn off - I would definitely have thought I was reading a Murakami novel. And I mean this as the greatest compliment, as Murakami is one of my favourite writers. I adore him. This also has that out there, jazz, what’s going on, quirky vibe. It really added to the enjoyment of it for me. It was on my wavelength (or I was on its).

(Apart from which, Murakami has a non-fiction book titled Underground which is about the sarin gas attacks in Tokyo. So many strange coincidences.)

Alternating between some really heavy chapters, with difficult subject matter, to moments of absolute comedy is sheer genius. The threads between the stories is sheer genius. That such a big picture story can encompass so much that is good and bad in the world, is sheer genius. The magnitude of all that it achieves to convey, from the lives in a small country that most people haven’t heard of, to glittering, bustling metropolises, is sheer genius. The pulse that is life. The randomness of life. The whole “butterfly effect” theory, and how interlinked we strangers are. Cause and effect.

It’s a curious thing, I read an interview by Mitchell with The Irish Times (dated around 2018?), where he says something along the lines of being embarrassed to read his earliest works. At finding them (and I’m ad libbing here), cringeworthy. If only he could see what I see. And countless other readers. It’s quite simply something beyond words to have this reading experience.

*** Shout out to the wonderful talented Mr.Neale-ski, who I had the pleasure of sharing this with. I decided out of the blue that 2022 will be the Year of my David Mitchell Odyssey. And Neale agreed to join me. To read his books from go to whoa this year. Just because. We’ve had a lot of fun and many very interesting conversations around this one. It certainly is one that makes you think in all sorts of directions. ***

Book 1 of the David Mitchell-a-thon done. Amazing. Please make sure you check out Neale’s review https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... (the Muse has landed!), as he is a massive David Mitchell aficionado, and has read each of the books several times. Also he's posted some of our discussion on his blog https://www.nealesbookblog.com/copy-o... (where we talked about all kinds of stuff). I’ve only dipped my toes in the water with two of his novels Black Swan Green and Utopia Avenue, both of which I absolutely loved. This is my first reading of Ghostwritten. It’ll live in my head for a long, long time. And I’ll happily read it again one day.

”The dog needs to be fed.”
(pink soup! pink soup!)
Profile Image for Kalliope.
691 reviews22 followers
May 7, 2013
How dare I write yet another review of Ghostwritten, when most of my GR friends have read, loved, and written fantastic reviews on this book already? I have LIKED Kris’s, and S.Penkevich’s.

So, I will refer my reader to those reviews and here I will only record some loose thoughts.

As with any thing that is openly praised by most, I was a bit apprehensive to approach David Mitchell. Satisfaction is the difference between Attainment and Expectations.

But I have liked the book even though I had to wait until close to 40% (can you tell I read it in e-format?) to get a sense of whether I was enjoying it or not.

I loathe the word “connectivity”. It is a buzz word in my office and a colleague-friend and I always make side jokes whenever it is used. At work it is supposed to mean that we have all our activities well engrained with each other to form a smooth, efficient and international business. In reality it means that very little is defined in how the various processes should be working with each other, and also that responsibilities should remain unassigned. For us this word is a code for BS.

So, it is very hard for me to say that it is the connections between the people, the stories, and the literary references (see S.Penkevich’s list of them) that have appealed to me the most in this book. Yes, the odious “connectivity” is what I single out as the best part of this novel.

I should add that it was during reading it that a long lost friend managed to contact me. This happened thanks to an unexpected series of connections that took place between London - Paris – New York – Bristol – Delhi - New Haven and Madrid.

This made my reading all the more spooky. I felt in my skin Mitchell’s depiction of the way our contemporary lives are affected by transport and telecommunications. His reminding us that we are mistaken in understanding our lives are a single line while forgetting that other points in that line do actually form other single lines that can eventually, decades later, cross our lines again, certainly hit home with me.

But the missing star is because I felt that David Mitchell does not differentiate sufficiently the various narrator voices, in spite of what most critics say. Some characters, in particular the HK lawyer and the London ghostwriter rang too close to each other. And although the Petersburg story is one of my favorites, the voice of the narrator seemed too dumb and a bit fake.

This book merits a second reading, which should also happen for me soon.
Profile Image for Nandakishore Mridula.
1,242 reviews2,257 followers
July 9, 2016
Oh my God. Can David Mitchell write.

Reading this book, you will never think it's a first novel; Mitchell's mastery of the written word is so consummate. The prose flows, one word after another, forming sentences, paragraphs and chapters in natural progression. The skill of the author is evident in the fact that he himself is invisible - the story seems to write itself, thus justifying the title of the novel in a fashion.

This novel -"in nine parts", as Mitchell calls it - is a series of interconnected narratives. It foreshadows Cloud Atlas, but is more loosely structured. Each part is narrated by a different person, as the story moves across the world from Japan to America via China, Mongolia, Russia and the UK. The voices are stunningly different, as are the themes: we have terrorism from a doomsday cult, financial intrigues and gangsters, love and rock music and a disembodied spirit searching for its origin and perhaps the origin of the world. All these parts are interconnected in time and space through characters who bump into each other, intentionally and unintentionally.

Which brings us to the theme of the novel: connectivity. In the eighth part which describes the flight of a quantum physicist from her pursuers employed by the Pentagon, the concept of quantum connectivity with regard to the human condition is explored in details. In the realm of Heisenberg uncertainty, the quantum soup froths and foams, existence shifting between particles and waves; until everything is brought down to the realm of probability rather than certainty. In this world, a leaf falling in pre-revolutionary China will affect war in twenty-first century Arabia. Everything one does has an effect, but not one which can be predicted. Glorious uncertainty is the only certainty.

However, exactly what the author intends will become clear only when one reads part 9, which is a brilliant transcript of a radio talk show which rounds off the novel - though not quite. There is a sort of epilogue which loops us back to part one, turning cause and effect brilliantly on its head in true quantum fashion.

A truly magnificent piece of work.
Profile Image for Algernon (Darth Anyan).
1,496 reviews962 followers
May 15, 2018

Like the great Russians, Mitchell makes us feel that more is at stake than individual lives, although it's by individual lives that pain and loss are measured.

I don't usually start my reviews with cover blurbs, but this one from 'Los Angeles Times' seems appropriate for describing in a very concise form the scope of the project and the underlying humanism of the intellectual exercise.

Also appropriate, in retrospect, is the use of a quote from Thornton Wilder's "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" as the opening gambit for Mitchell's literary debut. Like the much shorter but equally ambitious novel by Wilder, David Mitchell explores here the relationship between chance and fate by looking at the isolated yet interconnected lives of several people. Instead of bringing all his characters to the focal point of a collapsing bridge, Mitchell plays his game of 'six degrees of separation' across the whole globe : from Okinawa to Tokyo, Hong Kong to mainland China, Mongolia to Saint-Petersburg, London to a tiny island off the Ireland coast, across the Atlantic to New York then closing the circle all the way back to Japan.

Tempting as it is to write a synopsis for each separate episode, to honor the talent that brought to life and got this reader firmly involved in the outcome of each story, I find it more rewarding for now to track down and capture the hidden ropes that Mitchell uses to make these people dance.

Why do things happen the way they do? Since the gas attack on the subway, watching those pictures on TV, watching the police investigate like a crack squad of blind tortoises, I've been trying to understand ... Why do things happen at all? What is it that stops the world simply ... seizing up? [...]
I don't know the answer, no. Sometimes I think it's the only question, and that all other questions are tributaries that flow into it. [...]
Might the answer be 'love'?

The remark comes from a Mr Fujimoto, publisher in Tokyo, in the aftermath of the infamous Sarin Gas attack that also features in the opening segment of the novel. It's also a reiteration of the opening blurb, about the Big Questions from the likes of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. (as an Easter egg, one of the characters on the TransSiberian train later in the plot is reading "War and Peace" and remarks that it's about chance and fate, the same focus Mitchell declares in his debut novel.)

In the context of the present multilayered novel, love is indeed the focus, but Mitchell already sees Love as a larger marker for human motivation. Having already read "Cloud Atlas", it strikes me that "Ghostwritten" is basically the same novel, like a final draft or general theatrical rehearsal before the big opening - an attempt to map the constantly shifting territories of human desire, to find the balance between freedom and power, civilization and barbarism. The next quote is from the Russian episode, as Margarita Latunsky is a willing prisoner in an abusive relationship:

History is made of people's desires. But that's why I smile when people get sentimental about this mysterious force of pure 'love' which they think they are steering. 'Loving somebody' means 'wanting something'. Love makes people do selfish, moronic, cruel and inhumane things.

As in Okinawa, where a young terrorist is devoted to his guru and willing to abdicate reason in exchange for a sense of belonging.

Society is an 'outer' abdication. We abdicate certain freedoms, and in return we get civilization. We get protection from death by starvation, bandits, and cholera. It's a fair deal. Signed on our behalf by our educational system on the day we are born. However, we all have an 'inner' self that decides to what degree we honor this contract. This inner self is our own responsibility.

The theme is revisited much later in the novel as an artificial intelligence tries to interpret the rigid laws written in its initial programming in order to solve ethical dilemmas.

Two principles are contradicting each other: preserve life, and acquire wealth. How do you know what to do?

I meant only to demonstrate the subjective nature of laws

In a Tokyo music store, the answer to the riddle seems simple enough when Love comes knocking on the door, to the tune of a classic jazz melody. Satoru and Tomoyo are both young and ready to receive its message:

The her that lived in her looked out through her eyes, through my eyes, and at the me that lives in me.

Yet even they cannot exist in a vacuum, and must face pressure from a xenophobic culture and from mass consumerism. Truth is easier to find in a bordello than in a high rent neighborhood

But these magazine girls have nothing real about them. They have magazine expressions, speak magazine words, and carry magazine fashion accessories. They've chosen to become this. I don't know whether or not to blame them. Getting scarred isn't nice. But look! as shallow, and glossy, and identical, and throw-away, as magazines.

In Hong Honk, a high-flying business lawyer has his whole life shattered by the absence of love (left by his childless wife) and by his own lax morality. Neal Brose thought he could ride the wave of greed, but his shady deals are catching up with him. To make matters worse, he is also seeing ghosts, another recurrent theme in the novel.

Right, my phone. When these things first appeared, they were so cool. Only when it was too late did people realize they are as cool as electronic tags on remand prisoners.

Ghosts, paranormal activities and abuses of power are the mainstay of the next two episodes in China and Mongolia. Frankly, this has been the lowpoint of the novel for me, as I thought the author was more interested in repeating anti-leftist propaganda than in forwarding the Big Question. Still, there is a very interesting point Mitchell makes about the use of magic in storytelling. I misplaced the relevant quote, but the argument appears several times in the novel: we make sense of reality by imposing structure on chaos / chance, by reinventing our past and our present through stories, conspiracy theories, self-deception, religion, political dogma, etc

The act of memory is an act of ghostwriting.

Therefore, does chance or fate control our lives? Well, the answer is as relative as time. If you're in your life, chance. Viewed from the outside, like a book you're reading, it's fate all the way.

There's an actual ghostwriter featured about halfway down the journey across the globe. Marco is also a drummer in a band, a libertine and a gambler. I wonder if he is somehow an avatar of the author?

I really am a drummer. My band's called 'The Music of Chance'. I named it after a novel by that New York bloke.

That's an Easter Egg about Paul Auster, and now I probably have to add his novel to my ever growing pile to-be-read. Interesting juxtaposition here between architecture / design in musical composition and chaos theory. The solution to Marco's quandary is in the best tradition I have come to associate with Mitchell: personal responsibility and a touch of kindness / true love.

I have noticed a critical attitude from Mitchell in the China, Mongolia episodes, but that may be my own bias speaking. The novel is just as strongly critical of institutional greed in business and of military opportunism, especially in the stories of scientist Mo Muntervary and of disk-jockey Bat Segundo. Mo is hunted by the CIA for refusing to work on military applications of her 'quantum cognition' theory. Bat Segundo hosts a late night radio show as the world around him burns.

My, it's a sick zoo we've turned the world into.

Quantum physics speaks in chance, with the syntax of uncertainty.

Have you noticed how countries call theirs 'sovereign nuclear deterrents', but call other countries' ones 'weapons of mass destruction'?

This part of the novel once again reminds me strongly of "Cloud Atlas" and of its futuristic post-apocalyptic vibe. After the bombs are launched and the animals escape from the zoo, all he have left are the stories we tell in order to make sense of the world and our tattered , feeble humanity.

"Not all lunatics are writers, Mrs. Rey – believe me."
"But most writers are lunatics, Bat – believe me. The human world is made of stories, not people. The people the stories use to tell themselves are not to be blamed."


Highly recommended, although I believe it is better to read "Ghostwritten" before "Cloud Atlas" in order to avoid a more critical approach to this early draft. I would also recommend a re-read, eventually after going through the whole output from Mitchell, both to find thematic similarities and to spot some of the numerous Easter Eggs. I mentioned Auster and Tolstoy, but there is also Nabokov in here, and Yeats, and Asimov, Timothy Leary and, for me quite strongly, some Murakami influence – in the use of paranormal elements and jazz music as key elements of storytelling.

She'd had a birthmark shaped like a comet is first mentioned here , as are the names Tim Cavendish and Louisa Rey. The fascination with words and different styles of storytelling is also present in this debut novel. I liked Mitchell's enthusiasm for London and for Oxford Street in particular from the Marco episode.

London is a language. I guess all places are.

Finally, for my own bookmark and later reference, here's a tentative, abridged soundtrack listing from Satoru, the Tokyo saxophone player:

Mal Waldron – "Left Alone",
Duke Pearson – "After the Rain",
Tony Williams – "In a Silent Way";
Johnny Hartman;
Duke Jordan – "After the Rain"
134 reviews197 followers
June 3, 2010
Oh dear. All the cool kids love David Mitchell. I want to be one of the cool kids! But I won't lie to you, cool kids: this book frustrated the hell out of me, at times outright pissed me off, despite my respect for Mitchell's dexterity hat-trick (intellectual, narrative, verbal). It's the kind of book that made me scarf down the last 100 pages in a single day, breathlessly turning pages in the hopes of making sense of its head-scratching patchwork, only to put down the tome humming that Peggy Lee tune that's so helpful in moments of disappointment. Is this what it was like to be a fan of TV's Lost, I wonder?

It's really the structure that's the source of my headaches with this book. Individually I liked most of the stories/chapters/whatevers (only the "Holy Mountain" one straight-up bored me), but together they add up to something I'm not buying. And I hated how Mitchell undermined his own perfectly fine stories with confusing little twists and flourishes meant to blow our minds, I guess, like when he actually ends one of the more gripping tales with a sentence like "None of this really happened." Or the other story that ends with its protagonist keeling over in death throes only to offer some mumbo-jumbo about how he's dying "again" or remembers what it feels like to die, or something. Whatever, dude. As for the little dollops of interconnectivity that Mitchell drops in to "link" the stories, I found them either underexplained or just unconvincingly contrived.

The last story (not counting a brief, completely incomprehensible epilogue) is sort of a microcosm of my reaction to the book. I absolutely love the premise of that Manhattan-set chapter: the apocalypse from the perspective of a late-night radio DJ, sending out survivalist missives over the airwaves. (For a more satisfying variation on a similar premise, check out one of my favorite movies of last year, the awesomely brainy horror-comedy Pontypool .) I was carried along by its strangeness, its current of pleasantly defamiliarizing prose, its intriguing narrative surprises. But at some point that all goes over the top and the piece ends in an act of imaginative self-pleasuring, Mitchell's intellectual showboating finally outstripping any and all chance of my what-the-hell-is-going-on curiosities being sated.

I realize, of course, that in some respects I'm just being dim, and that some of Mitchell's project has flown over my head. Fine. I read lots of books that fly over my head; the difference lies in whether or not the author makes me aspire to fill the gap between my head and the book. The ending--and nearly all the individual pieces' endings--of this book made me shrug so insouciantly that I'm just enjoying the summer breeze of that book whooshing through my cranium's airspace.

Still three stars cuz it was consistently interesting and reading it made me feel like one of the cool kids, if only for a short while.
Profile Image for Samadrita.
295 reviews4,570 followers
October 20, 2013
"I wonder what happened to him, I wonder what happened to all of them, this wondering is the nature of matter, each of us a loose particle, an infinity of paths through the park, probable ones, improbable ones, none of them real until observed whatever real means, and for something so solid matter contains terrible, terrible, terrible expanses of nothing, nothing, nothing..."

Ordinary human lives, sometimes crisscrossing, sometimes briefly touching, sometimes swiftly passing each other by through the fabric of space and time, creating imperceptible ripples on the surface of some invisible lake of our collective consciousness that eventually lead up to an event of cataclysmic significance....

Everything considered, Ghostwritten is an imperfect masterpiece. In the sense it makes its far-reaching ambitions of being viewed as a tour de force of its generation apparent at the onset but when one sets about to allow oneself keener examination of all its narrative intricacies, it smacks of amateurishness. If, at its best, Ghostwritten is a fascinating meditation on the hollowness of human lives, human fallacies, urban alienation, intertwined fates and our unslakable thirst for validation in the 21st century then at its worst it is a rather complicated mess of styles and themes usually identified with two masters of the craft - Calvino and Murakami. I'd, thus, refrain from calling it masterful and call it the work of a master in the making instead.

There is something so blatantly Murakami-esque about this book, that I am tempted to label Mitchell as Murakami Lite and this is supposed to serve more as a mild chiding rather than approbation of any form. It is like Murakami's ghost (excuse the unintended pun) continuously haunts Mitchell's characters and their lives, his voice reverberating in their unvoiced musings, innermost stream of thoughts, conversations and his invisible presence subtly influencing the magical-realist aspects of the book. So much so there's even a minor character who fleetingly mentions spotting his own doppelganger on the streets of London one day. I almost began anticipating the appearance of talking cats or strange sheep men after this point, although thankfully none were found in the end.
But regrettably enough, this book failed to give me any of those goosebumps-inducing moments of pure intrigue which I have often come to categorize along with the effects produced by Murakami's surrealistic vignettes.

It is also quite obvious Mitchell has distilled the essence of Calvino's Invisible Cities into his own deconstruction of modern day cities like Tokyo, Hong Kong, St Petersburg, London and New York in a 20th-21st century set up. The concept of islets of human existence huddled together in their own miniature niches, disparate yet suffering from similar fates, their ideas of the city they dwell in coalescing clumsily to impart the city its true identity, comes into play here but not under the guise of Calvino's beautifully rendered symbolism.

Prior to picking up this book, I had heard so much about Mitchell and the widespread adoration he enjoys especially among my Goodreads friends, I was expecting something life-altering and unforgettable. And despite the narrative sweep and all-encompassing nature of the subjects Mitchell touches upon here, Ghostwritten seems to be neither of the aforementioned. At least not in my opinion. And as the novelty of the interconnection among the short story length snippets wears off with the gradual progress of the narrative, the lack of finesse in Mitchell's writing becomes all the more prominent.
"God knows darn well that dabbling in realpolitik would coat his reputation with flicked boogers."

Inclusion of quite a few crude metaphors like the one above just felt jarring to the overall tone of the novel.

I am hoping Cloud Atlas is more accomplished.
Profile Image for Katie.
268 reviews335 followers
July 20, 2016
The most admirable thing about this novel is its ambition. Had I read this when it came out and Mitchell was a new unknown author maybe I would have been a lot more impressed. But having read Mitchell’s best novels my expectations were, unfairly perhaps, up very high. The ten episodes that make up this novel deal with globalisation, terrorism, banking fraud, conspiracy theory, particle physics – in other words the most pressing issues of our times.

The biggest problem for me was I found the characters rather dull and soulless. Virtually all of them were trying too hard to be charming. Mitchell had clearly spent an awful lot of energy on formulating and weaving together his themes but perhaps expended rather less energy on creating autonomous engaging characters through which to tell his stories. The writing too and especially the humour seemed hit and miss to me, as if he still hadn’t quite found his feet as a writer. In this and other ways Ghostwritten is like an early trial run for Cloud Atlas. In Cloud Atlas every character returns; in Ghostwritten they disappear except for rather forced and threadbare cameos. You understand here how vital it was to the magnetic charge of Cloud Atlas that the characters all got a second narrative voice.

Mitchell uses the butterfly effect to connect the ten episodes of this book. I have to confess particle physics isn’t my strong point but as a unifying principle I found his pseudo-scientific musings on chance and fate and synchronicity just a little too glib and forced – the stories shoehorned into his ideas rather than dramatizing them into life. The episodes didn’t coalesce to form a continuity of narrative for me. And the window in each episode to other episodes was often little more than an irrelevance.

There are enjoyable moments in this novel but all in all it was like the literary equivalent of listening to early studio demos by one of your favourite musicians.
Profile Image for Berengaria.
361 reviews64 followers
May 16, 2023
4.5 stars

An absolute wowzer of a 1st novel.

The amount of personal knowledge, research, and thought that must have gone into creating such an expansive novel! Mitchell has his material entirely under control right from the start. It doesn't escape out from under him even once no matter how many twists or connections or details appear (or disappear).


And one could probably say this is the realistic twin of Cloud Atlas (which was literary/fictional) and score extra brownie points for "how cool is that".

But there *are* problems.

First of all, the characters are rather stereotype. Or at least, they're easily guessable because they would probably be many people's 1st or 2nd association with that place/job/person. I know they were mine.

Another minus point is that, unfortunately, a good chunk of those guessable main characters are dicks with all the smarmy charm of wormy chickens. (Especially: Hong Kong, Petersburg, London and Night Train.) Others characters are just dull (Clear Island, Tokyo).

What Mitchell DOES with these characters, the twists he gives their stories, is unique and fascinating - but I found that many of the chapters started out very standard (read: kinda boring) and had a rather steep uphill grind to get anywhere interesting. Which they all did...eventually.

The exception - and for my money the very best chapter in the whole novel - is "Mongolia," which admittedly, contains a lot of Mitchell magic. That one starts out at 200 mph of interesting and doesn't slow down.

If only more had been like that one!

This is my 3rd Mitchell and I'd have to say 2nd fave after Cloud Atlas and before Jakob de Zoet.
Profile Image for Megan Baxter.
985 reviews656 followers
May 19, 2014
Ghostwritten, and ghostridden and by a ghost, ridden.

This is my second David Mitchell, and I like it almost as much as the first one I read, which was Cloud Atlas, and absolutely blew my socks off. I think Cloud Atlas is a more masterful and audacious use of the same technique that you can see developing in Ghostwritten, but I enjoyed it in its developing stages here quite a lot.

Note: The rest of this review has been withdrawn due to the recent changes in Goodreads policy and enforcement. You can read why I came to this decision here.

In the meantime, you can read the entire review at Smorgasbook
Profile Image for B0nnie.
136 reviews49 followers
September 17, 2012
The 'G' on my keyboard barely works. I keep typing host for ghost. But that's all right - hosts and ghosts are the point in Ghostwritten. A similar problem could have given me ghost-ridden, which this book is (there's even a Caspar) yet it's the hosts here that are the most interesting, not the ghost surfing.

Mitchel's characters are real - the man knows how to write, as I found out in Cloud Atlas. There, the connection between the characters is metafictional. In Ghostwritten it is metaphysical. However, the whole overarching theme of ghostwriter puts a foot in that other door, as a sort of containing device.

Who but a writer would use ghostwriter as a metaphor for the metaphysical? Writers: the people who give us books. If only non-writers could write. But...they can...! and that is why ghostwriters exist. It's a big industry - for instance the ghostwriter for Hillary Clinton's memoirs received a fee of about $500,000 of the book's $8 million advance. In fact probably all books written by the famous are ghostwritten. Cookbooks, guides, self-help books too. Medical papers. Nancy Drew.

Oh please let Chronicles, Vol. 1 and Just Kids be the exceptions!

Ghostwritten has ten chapters, nine places, and many remarkable characters. Their lives intersect directly and sometimes just by a bare feather's touch. The plot is can be explained like this totally spoilered summary:

A mad religious fanatic sees himself in a baby's eyes and phones a jazz guy to say that his dog needs to be fed and this causes the jazz guy to run to Tokyo and be noticed in a restaurant by an unhealthy man who is screwing his maid (her grandmother had been raped and had a baby and that old woman talks to a tree: the tree ends up as a baby girl) and later there's a comet which has nothing to do with Eve and the Serpent by Delacroix [a fictional painting] being stolen from the Hermitage, nor the gunfire, nor the unhealthy man's wife moving to London because she can't have a baby even though there's a ghost baby in their apartment, so she screws a guy who's a ghostwriter, whose girlfriend had had a baby several years earlier, and that same guy saves the life of a physicist who also once had a baby but damn, babies turn into teens before you can say Jackie McLean (or Miles Davis, Kenny Burrell, Chick Corea, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Chet Baker, or Herbie Hancock - all mentioned by the jazz guy - see Ian's review for the whole list and a better review too) but the physicist does know the three laws of robotics - and uses them wisely - however those rules can be circumvented ever so easily, damn, as we learn from a DJ (he has a baby too - it's about 8 years old) by his giving bad advice to a gizmo machine that seems to be a sentient satellite with powers that can make others give up the ghost...and possibly all ghosts.

Just read it.
Profile Image for Matt Quann.
630 reviews382 followers
June 17, 2019
5 Selected Pairings for David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten

1. A Pot of Light/Dark Roast Blend

You’ll want yourself a large pot of coffee to go along with Ghostwritten, one that gives you a boost of caffeine, but doesn’t sacrifice the rich complexity of the best mugs of java. Like the coffee, Ghostwritten is an energetic and complex blend. You’ll want coffee as a companion through the read, but also to help you stay sharp as Mitchell challenges and demands your attention.

2. 22, A Million by Bon Iver

Bon Iver’s new album is a challenging departure from his sophomore effort, Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Where the previous album felt like the soundtrack to a hike through the woods, 22, A Million is a wall of TV screens, each set to a different channel. I had the album on my turntable time and again while I leafed through Mitchell’s debut, and it became hard not to draw comparisons between the two pieces of art. Bon Iver’s album feels disjointed, busy, and confusing on the first listen, but gives way to a really beautiful listening experience on further spins. No song feels like it should follow the track that came before and yet it is impossible not to feel the thread that binds them together as an album.

Much in the same way, Ghostwritten presents a series of stories that are exceptionally different from one another, but are connected enough that the book can just squeeze into the mold of a novel. With Mitchell you never quite know what to expect with each book. Are we getting a straightforward historical novel a la The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet or are we looking down the supernatural barrel of The Bone Clocks? Ghostwritten is the most off the wall of Mitchell’s novels that I’ve read. The stories are extremely varied in genre, theme, and style.

3. Superhero Comic Books

How dare I bring that entirely pedestrian art-form into a discussion of LITERATURE? Well, there’s something to be said for Mitchell’s übernovel and its similarities to shared-universe superhero fiction. For those who are unaware, Mitchell’s characters crop up over all of his work and minor players in one novel can become leads in the next. It goes the other way too: leads can drop into the background of other characters’ tales.

For now, the interconnected nature of the novels are just fun little Easter eggs for the Mitchell fanatics, but damn, they sure make me feel like I’m reading literary comic books. So when Luisa Rey pops up to call into a radio show in Ghostwritten, or the eponymous ghostwriter visits Timothy Cavendish, I can’t help but feel like Mitchell’s world lives beyond its pages.

4. The Rest of the Mitchell Bibliography

I’ve been reading my Mitchell sparingly and in no proper order. With Ghostwritten finished, I just have Black Swan Green to have read the entirety of his übernovel to date. Ghostwritten is Mitchell’s debut and it is really compelling to see the genius that would put together Cloud Atlas in its relative infancy. Where Cloud Atlas feels more tempered in structure and writing style, Ghostwritten is loose and free. Though this makes for some truly fascinating stories, it also means that not each story is as compelling as the last. Some stories--Hong Kong comes to mind-- are so manic that they are a bit exhausting to read, while others—think Clear Island-- are a bit slower and bogged down by a disjointed structure that doesn’t quite work.

But for every story that underwhelmed me there were two that stunned me. The one-two punch of Holy Mountain and Mongolia show Mitchell at his most humanistic and playful. While the first story showed Mitchell’s handle on culture and great female leads, the second story made me reframe the first with a supernatural twist. This kind of thing crops up all over Ghostwritten as Mitchell has the reader look through a filter at a story they thought they were done with.

What’s more, this is a good sampling of Mitchell’s writing chops. You’ve got sci-fi, romance, crime, thriller, mundane life, fantasy, and the compelling characters that make Mitchell’s books soar. It has been fun to come to this first book having read most of what follows. Mitchell has definitely honed his skills since this first book, and I’m happy that I read Ghostwritten to see the first shoots of what has become a sturdy and reliable tree.

5. OPTIONAL: A Hangover

I can't say that I advise this as a pairing for Ghostwritten, but I finished off the novel this morning after a particularly large night. After all's said and done, it is a pretty good companion for the day after a night of excess.
Profile Image for Ron.
388 reviews89 followers
February 22, 2017
It’s easy to miss an important reference, or two, or three, while reading a David Mitchell novel – I learned that the hard way. After flipping the final page of the Ghostwritten, I did one of these moves: (think Lou Costello).

Then I swallowed my pride and headed off to Wiki to find some answers. Here’s me while reading Wikipedia’s page on Ghostwritten: “Missed that…Definitely didn’t see that…Was that even in the book?...Hey, there’s something I remember!” I’m exaggerating a little, but you get the point. It’s kind of brilliant when I think back now. The occasional semi-obvious reference linked these nine stories into one slightly-related entity. I caught most of those. Then there were the few subtle, yet mind-bending, references that spoke to the overall meaning. Sort of. Blink and you’ll miss them – like me.

I won’t even try to spell out the plot here. My reason for picking up Ghostwritten is due to first reading, and very much liking, another of Mitchell’s books, The Bone Clocks. No doubt I missed a few things in the midst of that one too, but if that’s true, I had a lot more fun while doing so. And that’s the thing with Ghostwritten. Fun was absent. Truth is I liked about three of the nine stories. At one point while reading, I thought of my little niece, and the time we pulled a variety of board games out of the closet. “Borrrriiiing”, she’d loudly quip to each game offered up for play. Yeah, I was a little like that.

This in no way means that I’ll quit reading the David Mitchell books. I still think he’s a brilliant writer, and I’m drawn to this idea that all of his books are tied together, if only by the tiniest of threads. After Ghostwritten comes Number9Dream. Please be more fun.
Profile Image for Vaso.
1,141 reviews147 followers
January 12, 2018
Το βιβλίο αποτελείται από μικρές ιστορίες-διηγήματα, ξεχωριστές μα με κάποιον τρόπο συνδεδεμένες.
Το ντεμπούτο του Μίτσελ υπήρξε πραγματικά εκπληκτικό κι αυτό το λέω έχοντας ήδη διαβάσει το Μαύρος κύκνος. Αν σαν πρώτη αναγνωστική επιλογή από το συγγραφέα επέλεγα το συγκεκριμμένο, ενδεχομένως να μην το εκτιμούσα το ίδιο.

B.R.A.C.E 2018 Το ντεμπούτο βιβλίο ενός συγγραφέα
Profile Image for Caro the Helmet Lady.
763 reviews342 followers
June 24, 2018
It's pretty hard to write about the book that I was rather breathing than reading. Yes, I loved it. As much as I liked (adored) Cloud Atlas, I'd probably rate this one a bit higher (but only in my mind, because GR has no half stars, boo). This was Mitchell's debut book, which is kind of incredible. To write in a language that is so beautiful, to create worlds that are so polished and so finished - for a debut!
The novel is a set of 9 stories that are connected by a net of coincidences, characters or words that are like some secret codes to the world created by author. You have to be a really careful reader and agree with the rules of this game. By saying that I don't think I'm spoiling. I'm encouraging.
With all the characters the story jumps and moves through the time and space - as it often happens in Mitchell's novels. The narration often (mostly) is a stream of consciousness of the characters and they catch you with their stories and won't let you go, even if you hate some of them.
And I hope I'm not spoiling yet again by saying that there's a light touch of paranormal in it. It could put some readers off, I guess, but for me it was this extra cherry on the top. Although it would work for me even without that cherry. It still would be an utterly satisfying reading experience.
Profile Image for Blair.
1,770 reviews4,248 followers
January 2, 2018
I want to shout from the rooftops about how much I loved this book! I don't think this is going to be a very coherent review, as it's another of those books that is difficult to describe without giving everything away. Ghostwritten was David Mitchell's debut, published in 1999, and it is similar to his better-known Cloud Atlas in that it consists of a number of diverse - but interconnected - stories (and, indeed, a number of characters from that book also make appearances here). It's hugely entertaining, intellectually engaging, funny, fast-paced and addictive. It's been a long time since I read something that I really, really didn't want to tear myself away from, but lots of things, from work to TV to sleep, were jettisoned in favour of this book.

As with my review of Cloud Atlas, I have briefly summarised what happens in each chapter below, so what follows may count as spoilers, although I have tried to avoid spoiling what might be considered plot points. However, if you haven't yet read Ghostwritten, I would advise you to skip the below - I think the surprise of each new chapter enhanced my enjoyment.

1. Okinawa: A member of a doomsday cult, responsible for an attack which has resulted in a number of deaths, flees the scene of his crime and attempts to go into hiding.
2. Tokyo: A jazz-obsessed teenage boy who works in a record store meets, and falls in love with, the girl of his dreams.
3. Hong Kong: A corrupt financial lawyer, with something of Patrick Bateman about him, hurtles towards a breakdown as he struggles to keep his dodgy dealings a secret. His narrative also touches on the disintegration of his marriage, an affair with the maid, and the apparent haunting of his flat by the ghost of a little girl.
4. Holy Mountain: A woman runs a tea shack outside a small village on one of China's holy mountains. This story differs from the others in that it spans her whole life, and shows the damaging effect of different periods of political unrest on her peaceful existence.
5. Mongolia: Even more unusual - the protagonist of this one is a disembodied entity which inhabits different individuals' minds and jumps from person to person by 'transmigrating' when they touch. It is searching for the secret of its existence through the only thing it remembers, a fragment of a folk tale, which seems to have originated in Mongolia.
6. Petersburg: A gallery attendant, a fading beauty with delusions of grandeur who is desperately clinging on to an abusive relationship, becomes caught up in an art heist.
7. London: A womanising drummer in a going-nowhere band, who also works as a ghostwriter, is dragged into a bet which involves gambling away all the money he has - despite the fact that he is already in a large amount of debt.
8. Clear Island: A brilliant scientist who is being pursued by agents of the US government returns to the tiny Irish island she grew up on.
9. Night Train: The host of a late-night radio show in New York receives a strange phone call from a person calling themselves 'the Zookeeper'.
10. Underground: The protagonist of the first story reappears, and this time is depicted in the midst of his attack, on an underground train.

At first, I also started making a list of ways in which the stories are connected, but there were just too many. There's a lengthy list on the Wikipedia entry for this book, but even that isn't exhaustive - I spotted some that aren't listed there.

My favourite of the stories? It has to be #6, Petersburg - I adored the protagonist, Margarita, and could easily have read a whole book about her story. However, I really loved ALL of them. I can't emphasise this enough.

With short story compilations or novels made up of separate narratives, my overall opinion of the book often suffers because I find myself absolutely falling in love with one story/section, then being yanked out of that world and left with something I just don't enjoy in quite the same way. That didn't happen here, not because I didn't want any of the stories to be longer (I definitely did!) but because each new one was just as unique and engrossing as the last. I've really enjoyed the other David Mitchell books I've read, but this was the best (so far, anyway): it was everything I wanted Cloud Atlas to be.
Profile Image for Steve.
251 reviews875 followers
April 26, 2011
With Ghostwritten you catch glimpses and sometimes even longer scenes of the feature-length greatness that’s to come in Cloud Atlas. This was Mitchell’s publishing debut. As may be true of many first works, he could barely contain all that he wanted to say. It was chock full of people, places and ideas. He gave himself nine very different vehicles for addressing the question of why things happen as they do. The settings of the nine stories span Asia, Europe, and the US. Good, bad, young, old, East, West – it’s all there, with different tones for each. They connect often in incidental ways. For instance, events in story A are probably not crucial antecedents in story B. But the links can be entertaining in the same way that recognizing characters Mitchell reused in his other novels can be. Seeing the likes of Neal Brose, Luisa Rey, and Timothy Cavendish, who reappear in later books in different phases of their lives, can be fun. It’s like when you watch Mystic Pizza years after it was filmed, and see Matt Damon in a minor role as the kid brother of the spoiled, rich guy. Anyway, these connections, and all connections, could be mere happenstance. Or they could be fate. Then ask yourself this: Is everything determined by sets of causal inputs? Is there a role for free will? Is choice an illusion? What are the drivers within the system, the control variates, the precipitants? What part is played by love, greed, altruism, or self-interest? Mitchell’s answers to these questions were sometimes oblique, but he deserves full credit for raising them.

Getting back to structure – the focus of many reviews – Mitchell’s hallmark inventiveness was in early evidence here. To be honest, though, I didn’t think the pieces were stitched together quite as effectively in this one as in Cloud Atlas. Still, there were signs of the mastery to come. He switched voices well, clearly recognized the importance of good storytelling, and only occasionally dragged when describing the many people and places. I thought the stories set in Tokyo and London were especially well done. Other characters were appealing, too, or if not that, at least interesting. The common thread of the parts I enjoyed most was that they were told without devices, in a straightforward, true-to-life kind of way. I felt in other parts of the book that the then less mature Mitchell relied too much on transmigrating spirits, sci-fi AI constructs, and other phenomena not of this world. The supernatural entities helped tie things together, but for my taste they took more away in cogency than they added in creativity. He was also more convincing with the nobler traits. The young sax player in love was so much better drawn than the terrorist who was brainwashed. Thank you, David, for that.

I’ll sum up my experience reading this with a reference to Keith Jarrett. He’s the pianist that the young jazz buff in the Tokyo chapter appreciated for his improvisational skills. Jarrett will occasionally throw in little vocalized drones during his solos that can be a distraction. Despite this, you often get some of the best original work ever. And he just makes it all up.

With a rating of four I’m dropping a star, but not my membership in the Mitchell as Marvel Fan Club.
Profile Image for Amanda.
1,087 reviews222 followers
October 21, 2016
David Mitchell is brilliant. Hard to believe this is his first novel.

I wish that I had read David Mitchell's novels in the order they were written. He not only is the master of linked narratives he links his books/characters both forwards and backwards as well.

I really liked the interconnectedness (is that a word?) in this novel. Not just between the stories but the bigger notion of being connected in the world.

I only have 2 of his novels left to read so I hope he writes another one soon.
Profile Image for Dax.
240 reviews110 followers
October 27, 2020
I'm kicking myself for not jumping on the Mitchell bandwagon sooner. I loved the focus on interconnectedness and the debate of fate vs. free will. "We're all ghostwritters, my boy. And it's not just our memories. Our actions, too. We all think we're in control of our own lives, but really they're pre-ghostwritten by forces around us." And this: "The human world is made of stories, not people. The people the stories use to tell themselves are not to be blamed."

Mitchell utilizes a wide array of characters for each of the stories within this novel, and it was cool to see how he tied all of those unique stories together. Characters re-emerge several stories later, or there are subtle hints at the connectedness between different stories. It became a game of sorts to jot down notes on how this story related to that story and piece together the web that makes 'Ghostwritten' a unified novel. I also appreciated the diverse lenses with which individuals view the world. No characters share the exact same mindset, which I think a lot of authors will tell you is harder to accomplish than one might think.

This is a wholly original work. Mitchell's prose is clean but the story is complex. The language is diverse and the tones for one chapter can differ greatly from the next. The Night Train chapter is funny and terrifying at the same time. The Mongolia story is creepy and uplifting. It's just a lot of fun to read. Four to five star range, I'll go with a high four for now.
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