As a Mitchell fan from way back, I looked forward to reading this book from the time I first heard rumblings about it. I even managed to snag a signed copy of the book, like a true fan, and started reading. Wow. I was blown away by the first section, set in 1984, with its narrator, Holly Sykes, an angry 15 year old from Gravesend, in London. This section was rooted in reality, had depth of character, and voice. Also, it was true to place; setting, in other words, was real – so real I found myself tracking Holly’s wanderings on Google Earth as she set off on her adventure. I was totally into it. The writing in this section is crisp and insightful – Literature, with a capital “L”, in other words – and lots of fun to read.
Then, as is Mitchell’s wont to do, Holly’s narration gives way abruptly to that of Hugo Lamb, a minor recycled character from “Black Swan Green”, who now comes to the fore. (In a BBC interview Mitchell speaks of his recycled characters as workers fulfilling an “in-house job application.”) Seven years have passed. The year is 1991. Setting here (Cambridge)is still quite strongly invoked, but Hugo’s friends start to seem less real than Holly’s family, in part one. And Hugo also starts to seem unreal, hard to reconcile. Of course, Hugo eventually meets Holly, now 22, and working at a ski resort in Switzerland. Connections made.
Section three (2004) is less successful, more prosaic, in the voice of Holly’s husband Ed, a war correspondent home for a family wedding. Still, the wheels have not come off, and there is hope of a better voice, better narration in the next section. But no. Section four (2015) starts to be a real stinker, told in the voice of one Crispin Hershey, a cynical and resentful author – an amalgam of Timothy Cavendish (“Cloud Atlas”) and Martin Amis, or more specifically Amis’s character Richard Tull from “The Information”. While on the book promotion circuit, Hershey eventually connects with Holly, who has by now written a book called “The Radio People”, detailing the strange inner voices which populate her head. Her book is a runaway bestseller, which sparks Hershey’s resentment, but in the end the two become close friends. This was the longest, and perhaps most pointless section of the book, with a very unsympathetic character narrating a shaggy story.
Section five, “An Horologist’s Labyrinth” is set in 2015, and is easily the silliest of the six sections. It is here that the novel start to take on the attributes of so many YA novels these days, with weakly drawn characters and supernatural mumbo jumbo culminating in a battle royale between the forces of evil (who are, by the way, also known as Carnivores!) and the forces of good (yep, Vegetarians). I got through it.
By the time we get to section six (2043) Holly is back as the narrator in what seems like a long coda to the book. She is by now an old woman, living in her grandmother’s croft in remote Sheep’s Head, Ireland. This is a post-apocalyptic world, again, remarkably similar the central Hawaiian section of “Cloud Atlas” in subject, if not quality of writing. By 2043 there has been a general breakdown of society, the Chinese seem to be running things, there are shortages, and there is lawlessness. There is some nice, tense, dialogue in this section, but there is no transcendence. Mitchell simply seems to be phoning it in here, with oblique references to events, extrapolations from our present, and general gloom and doom. This is the part the Wing Nuts object to (a memo seems to have gone out) – this, and section three, which is critical of the American involvement Iraq war. Political people see things through a political lens, so they see this as “propaganda”. Of course, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. It’s much easier to criticize the actual writing, however, without bringing in politics. I mean, isn’t every dystopian novel an extrapolation of current political and social events? Isn’t “Hunger Games” all about inequality and abuse of power? Isn’t “!984” merely an extrapolation of what could happen, should we continue going down the path we’re on? Does that make it propaganda? Some visions are done better than others, however.
I am tempted to invoke the cliché “I really wanted to like this book”. In my case, however, it’s no cliché: I really did want to like it. And I did, to some extent. Which is where the three stars come in. Mitchell is a first class writer, a hugely talented guy, but this novel is, on the whole, second rate.