Author: David Mitchell.
Published: September 2, 2014.
I feel like this review is a long time coming. I started this book in early January and didn’t finish it until early May. I wasn’t reading it for a solid five months, I had books to read for university so unfortunately I didn’t get around to finishing it until this month. Anyway, I digress! If anyone of you know me, you’ll know David Mitchell is my favourite writer. This was my 3rd David Mitchell novel and I loved it. I don’t want to overly compare it to his other novels (which is hard since all his novels are connected) but Cloud Atlas (2004) is still my favourite, but this was pretty mind blowing all the same.
The novel has 6 narratives which take place is different time periods, from 1984 to 2043. There are many different plots with a multitude of characters but at the centre of it all is Holly Sykes. It’s basically the story of Holly Sykes and the people who are somehow connected to her. It’s thoroughly intrinsic and in places mind blowing. Some sections I enjoyed more than others. For the purpose of this review, I’m going to give a brief review of each narrative. And there **WILL BE SPOILERS. **
A Hot Spell – 8/10
The first narrative takes place in 1984 in Gravesend, England. Holly is only a teenager and is basically trying to be independent. She’s stubborn which is quite humorous. I really enjoyed the humour of this narrative. The accents of Irish/ English were good. I really liked Gwyns back story of going from place to place. Initially this section was a bit confusing in places. I had read of non-corpums before in Mitchell’s novels. They’re basically souls that travel from body to body, usually when that body has died. In this book they’re called Anchorites (bad) and Atemporals (good). Looking back, the section makes a lot of sense with her brother and the encounters with the Anchorites and Atemporlas , but it doesn’t click together until later on. It was set up well by Mitchell. Jacko’s (Holly’s brother) disappearance has repercussions throughout the rest of the novel. Overall, a good section.
Myrrh Is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume – 10/10
The second narrative takes place in 1991 in Switzerland & London, England. Our narrator her is Hugo Lamb who is a university student. Well-to-do, upper-middle class with all the privileges. This section was also really humorous. Hugo is pretty manipulative. I liked how he basically performed an identity and was really sleazy and manipulative. He fooled his friend, Penhaligon, into betting a massive amount which he lost and then convinces Penhaligon to sell his car in order to repay the debt. I think Penhaligon commits suicide later on but I can’t remember. It sounds really cruel but I loved how evil and manipulative he was (obviously I’d hate him in real life). I’m just really loving identity performance at the moment e.g. Gone Girl (2014). Hugo just acts really outgoing and posh but has a secret identity of corrupt behaviour. He has a secret bank account with a lot of money in it.
Holly Sykes then turns up when the Hugo and a group of his uni friends go skiing in Switzerland. Hugo ends up sleazing his way into her bed. The section then turns rather sci-fi/ thriller in nature. Hugo Lamb is then recruited to the Anchorites. That bit was a bit confusing but I just loved the whole section. The manipulation, negotiations, tactics, university lifestyle and networking were brilliant. One of my favourite sections of the book.
The Wedding Bash – 10/10
This was my favourite section of the book. It takes place in 2004. It switches between Baghdad, Iraq and Brighton, England. The narrator is Ed Brubeck, who lived quite close to Holly when she lived in Gravesend. Ed and Holly are now married with a daughter, Aoife. The story switches between the wedding in Brighton and Ed’s time in Iraq. He works as a war journalist which I really enjoyed reading about. His job literally means that he has to put his life on the line. I thought the narrative gave a great insight into what places of conflict are actually like and also the job of a war journalist. Holly obviously wishes that he would retire from the job as it posits a threat to his life. The parts that take place in Brighton are about arguments between the two regarding Ed’s desire to work in places of conflict.
I loved the metaphysical stuff ad how decisions can have massive consequences. For example, Ed’s life is saved twice. In one instance, he bends down to pet a cat just as an explosion shatters a window which would have killed him. Looking back at my notes, I realised that Mitchell had hinted (blatantly told us) of the atemporal in Jacko & I noted that I thought there may have been a soul in Holly which turned out to be right: Esther Little. The puzzle towards the end to try and find Aoife was amazing. Esther-in-Holly (I believe) gave the message of “ten fifteen” which turned out to be the room that Aoife was hiding it. The hunt to find her was so intrinsic. Loved it, and the whole section.
Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet – 9/10
This takes place in 2015. The narrator is Crispin Hershey, a down-on-his-luck writer. It’s basically about him going on book tours and trying to promote his books, although his sales aren’t doing great. Holly turns up, who happens to be doing really well selling her own book about her experiences with Jacko’s disappearance. There isn’t a massive amount of plot in this section and to be honest, I forget really what it was about.
Crispin tries to get revenge on Richard Cheesman who gave him a bad review. Cheesman ends up getting sent to jail for drug possession in Mexico or South America I think I can’t remember. The sentence turns out to be longer than Crispin had anticipated so he regrets his actions. Cheesman does come back for revenge but its Soleil Moore who ends up killing Crispin. When I first read it, I didn’t get it but now I understand that she was trying to get him to tell the world about the Anchorites. The character interactions and crime stuff were good. Overall, great section.
An Horologist’s Labyrinth – 10/10
This is the section where things start getting weird. It’s the climax of the novel. Mitchell really brings it home here about the war between the Anchorites and Atemporals. The story primarily takes place in 2025 and switches between a lot of places: Norway, Australia, New York and Russia. At first, I thought this part had a lot of jargon in it and was confusing to read, but suddenly everything clicked together and the whole novel was brought together. It explains the history of the Atemporals and their mission to wipe out the evil Anchorites.
I really enjoyed the reflections of the past and the back stories like in Australia and Russia. The history of humanity and civilisations was brilliant, especially when talking about the wandering souls of the Atemporals who are reborn in new bodies. I liked how it turned into a crime story/ fantasy story with the war culmination involving Holly. The retrospective nods back to Holly’s time in Gravesend, Esther Little hidden in Holly, Xi Lo being inside Jacko, Hugo Lamb being recruited and Marinus’ past was so intrinsic and really tied together.
The two missions were so epic. The retrieval of Esther reminded me of Inception (2010) because they had to delve deep into Holly’s memories in order to find where Esther was hidden, and there was even a message in Holly’s memory from 1984 that unlocks Esther after 41 years. That was just so mind blowing. I love how it all just transmits throughout time, the messages, the prompts, the hints. It’s just so massive in its ambition and patience, and also thoroughly metaphysical in nature.
Funnily enough, the second mission to defeat the Anchorites and also try to save Jacko/Xi Lo reminded me of Interstellar (2014), another of Christopher Nolan’s movies. Holly wanted one last shot to try and get her brother back fro this alternate dimension after 41 years. After the fight between the two sides, Holly escapes with Marinus and has to make her way through a labyrinth to get back to Earth. The labyrinth is an exact replica of a labyrinth that Jacko/ Xi Lo gave her back in 1984. When he got here, his memory created a physical representation of the maze as if he knew she would one day travel here. She knows the exact way to get out and makes it back to earth. That was so mind blowing and immense how Mitchell was able to construct all these narratives to fit in so perfectly with one another. It really just blew me away.
Sheep’s Head – 8/10
The final narrative takes place in 2043 in County Cork, Ireland. The setting is a post-apocalyptic earth were energy resources are scarce, people have very little electricity, technology doesn’t function well (if at all), cities have flooded, disease is rife. So its like the the world has gone back to feudal times and people have to barter at the market. China is apparently a superpower in the world that controls trade, energy, power, etc. Holly is now an old woman and she lives with her granddaughter, Lorelai, and her adopted grandson, Rafiq, who washed up on the shore after he was travelling on a refuge ship from Morocco.
It’s much more minimalist and slowed down after the last section. I really enjoyed the Irishness that Mitchell brings through in this section. It doesn’t have a major plot, its more about how humanity has ruined the planet and how people exist after everything is wrecked. Towards the end, these militia men come in to steal their solar panels and resources and a bit of a fight ensues. At the end, Marinus returns to save Lorelai and Rafiq and bring them to Iceland where it is safe. There isn’t enough room for Holly or Mo, so they stay in Cork. The ending is sad. The social commentary is good and there’s a real humanist interaction between characters.
Overall, I loved this book. Loved how everything tied together. I really enjoy stories that take place in different eras so this was a treat! So well written and developed, definitely worth the read!