Cecily's Reviews > Ghostwritten

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell
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's review
May 30, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: favourites, miscellaneous-fiction, mitchell-uber-book
Read in June, 2013

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). (view spoiler) 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: (view spoiler).


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 (view spoiler). It’s not immediately clear whether Z is a standard oddball, or somehow connected to one of the other characters.

It turns out that (view spoiler)


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):

(view spoiler)


• 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.” (view spoiler)

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

(view spoiler)

• “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.
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Comments (showing 1-21 of 21) (21 new)

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Kalliope I liked this paragraph: 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.

message 2: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Are you planning to re-review this as well?

Cecily Yes, I will revise this review (probably at excessive length) when I've finished, which should be in the next week or so. Having recently reread Cloud Atlas as well, I see the parallels with that, and within this book far more than the first time.

message 4: by Ian (last edited May 31, 2013 03:39PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye I can't wait to read it. I wouldn't worry about excessive length. What you write is always succinct and worth saying.

I read CA twice in order to appreciate it more, but ultimately I think the issues I had with CA reflected a concern that perhaps I'd enjoyed his use of his "gimmick" more, well, at least more spontaneously, in "Ghostwritten".

Cecily I like both, and on two occasions, I've read them in within a couple of months of each other. Both times I've preferred Ghostwritten, though I now think that Cloud Atlas is perhaps better/cleverer in a more technical sense.

message 6: by Ian (last edited Jun 01, 2013 02:59PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye I was lucky enough to read the first three in chronological order as they were first published, and will always reserve a special place for the first two. CA was more ambitious and harder work for me, but I think I got there in the end. It just needed more processing.

message 7: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye I'm getting really excited. How much longer do I have to wait?

message 8: by Cecily (last edited Jun 02, 2013 12:27PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Cecily Done. To misquote Blaise Pascal, I would have made it shorter, but I did not have the time. ;)

message 9: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye If I had to commission an architect to build a bridge in honour of comprehension and communication, I would choose you.

Cecily Well, thank you. But the world can be assured that I'll stick to words, not architecture or engineering.

message 11: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Words are enough.

Cecily Anyway, now I've reread your fantastic review, Ian (probably for the first time since I joined GR), I am humbled by your praise, and direct people to yours for an equally detailed, but refreshingly different analysis: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...

message 13: by Alan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alan Hall I think that a central point in ghostwritten is how Buddhist ontology chimes exactly with what quantum mechanics is telling us about the nature of reality. Annica is the Buddhist theory of impermanence. Both hold that objective reality is fundamentally different from how our limited senses experience and create our subjective reality. But here is the paradox or koan - we create reality with our subjectivity.
Mitchell makes the connection dismissively when Katie Forbes meets Marcus
'We had done the old quantum physics equals eastern religions bollocks'
But I don't think it's by chance that he mentions this in describing how they met.
I think this is actually the key to understanding a big puzzle in the book- what the non corporeal entity that phones the zookeeper at the end of the book actually is.

Others have speculated that It is another AI being. But the being is able to transmigrate into Humans like the one in Mongolia could but the zookeeper cannot.
'Without access to Muntervary's cerebral cortex how would I know all that?'
Perhaps it transmigrated into a second sentient AI and gained omniscience by becoming a hybrid. But it does not have the innocence and curiosity of the zookeeper. Plus it has knows if five others like it and has heard if three others. The existence if other non corporeal beings is likely given that one existed in comparatively remote parts of Asia. it is likely that such beings should be widespread if one existed there ( recall the Drake equation).
The point is that there is very little difference between a being created by quantum cognition and a being that is the result of karma that passes between one body and another. Hence eastern metaphysics meets western physics is not in fact a throwaway line.
I still have one puzzle to unravel- the zookeeper seems to be asking bat to justify its shifting ethical stance. And says that ' the opportunity presents itself in thirteen days, bat'
This is when the comet was due to narrowly miss the earth... Did the zookeeper know that it WAS DUE to hit and was it planning to intervene to make sure it wiped out humans?
The primary law would seem to be for the zookeeper to protect the zoo- life itself NOT humans. After all, a comet impact probably wiped out ninety per cent of a life when the dinosaurs became extinct.

The zookeeper's actions would fit with James Lovelocks GAIA hypothesis in this case. The zookeeper did seem to have regrets about saving the world the first time around. Bat gives him the analogous idea by suggesting damaging bridge to indirectly stop a massacre in Africa.
My final point is that perhaps this did lead to the demise of human 'civilisation' that takes place... In CLOUD ATLAS!
So even there could be yet another connection between these two marvellous books.

message 14: by Garima (last edited Sep 09, 2013 05:53AM) (new)

Garima I'll surely comeback to this review after reading Ghostwritten. You seem to have covered a lot many themes within this book in great detail.

Violet wells Your review has convinced me I need to read this again.

message 16: by Laura (new) - added it

Laura ^^^ I was thinking the same thing :)

Cecily I certainly enjoyed it far more second time round, in part because I'd read so many other Mitchells in the mean time.

Katie You write super reviews, Cecily. And reading through your favourite quotes I was left wondering why I didn't enjoy this a lot more. I think ultimately it was the characters. They all seemed to me early drafts of characters he has since hugely improved upon. Mo for example became the woman in The Bone Clocks (I forget her name) and he's done much better versions of the ghostwriter. The characters were just a bit too pasteboard quirky in this novel for me to feel any deep connection.

Cecily Katie wrote: "You write super reviews, Cecily. And reading through your favourite quotes I was left wondering why I didn't enjoy this a lot more. I think ultimately it was the characters..."

Gosh, thank you, Katie. I've just enjoyed some of yours. I think you're right that the characters are the weakness here, but Mitchell weaves his spell with words and he has me in awe.

Matthew Quann You've blown my paltry review out of the water! Splendid review Cecily, your grasp on the story helped me to reflect on the book and point out things I had missed. I still prefer Cloud Atlas, though I enjoyed the rawness of Ghostwritten.

Cecily Matthew wrote: "You've blown my paltry review out of the water! Splendid review Cecily, your grasp on the story helped me to reflect on the book and point out things I had missed..."

Thanks, but yours isn't paltry! Not even close. And it's far more creative and original.

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