What a book! Having read one other of David Mitchell’s books, Cloud Atlas, I was drawn to this but strangely have not picked it up since buying it over Christmas. This is in fact many books, books within books, worlds within worlds. We move from domestic social realism to high fantasy to post-apocalyptic sci-fi.
At first we are introduced to Holly, a fifteen year old girl from Gravesend who runs away from home. She is ordinary apart from her ability to hear the “radio people” which suggests schizophrenia or psychic precognition. The story jolts to another world of arrogant Cambridge undergraduates, then jolts again to the cynical falling apart space of fading novelist Crispin Hershey (who reminded me strongly of Martin Amis), then becomes like a bad fantasy novel as we learn of two sets of immortal beings battling through eternity. Finally the world has virtually collapsed with the outfall of global warming and we are back with Holly, now an old lady, eking out a living in the west of Ireland.
David Mitchell can certainly write and I really enjoyed his prose. I am not sure the book entirely worked. The movement between the different stories was too jarring for me. One felt like one was reading the sketches of many different novels sewn flimsily together through the device of Holly’s life story. I preferred the realistic parts to the fantasy. The Crispin Hershey section is very well done and very witty. In parts the book is profound and moving, in parts it is very silly. I was quite interested in the radio people idea at first but the theology didn’t really hang together in a believable coherent way so I lost interest in the fantasy section which just wasn’t credible to me and didn’t hold my attention.
The novel took me a long time to read. It was saved by the quality of the writing but ultimately I was disappointed.