Sceptre, 1999, 436 pages
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.
This was David Mitchell's first novel, but his techniques and storytelling style was already in place. If you have read his later books, particularly Cloud Atlas or The Bone Clocks, you will see a lot that is familiar here, including names.
That and the fact that it has some meandering sections typical of a first novel makes it good, but not great. David Mitchell is one of the best modern writers and becoming one of my favorites, so this book isn't a fumble as a first novel — it's just not as polished as his later ones. But since he does the same thing to better effect in his later books, I think Ghostwritten will suffer by comparison if you've read them first.
As usual, Mitchell weaves together a wide and diverse cast of characters, from an art thief in Russia to an old woman surviving the Communist revolution in China to an English ghostwriter to a non-corporeal body-hopping entity. Most of Mitchell's books have at least a little bit of the supernatural element in them, mixed with small doses of sci-fi, and Ghostwritten is no exception. The "noncorpum" entity later encounters another sort of non-corporeal being, a self-aware AI who becomes involved in the final chapters with a countdown to Armageddon.
With all these interesting stories, and a climax that sort of ties all the threads together, Ghostwritten often seemed more like a collage of individual stories than a single novel where everything was connected. The much more deliberate story-within-a-story effect used in Cloud Atlas now looks like how Mitchell decided to improve upon his earlier effort.
Verdict: This was a good book and anyone who has enjoyed Mitchell's other books will enjoy this one, but I would not say it's required reading unless you really want to read everything by him. 7/10
Also by David Mitchell: My reviews of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Cloud Atlas, and The Bone Clocks.
My complete list of book reviews.