Review: David Mitchell's Uber Novel

A long time ago, I started a series that quickly fell by the wayside, but the whole reason I started it was because I read Jon Steele’s Angelus trilogy & all of David Mitchell’s novels before I started blogging, and I wanted space to be able to rave about them. I only ever reviewed the Angelus trilogy and never got around to David Mitchell, so here we are, finally! Buckle up because it’s going to be a wild one.

To say that I love David Mitchell’s books is a serious understatement. My most anticipated read of this year was S.A. Chakraborty’s finale, The Empire of Gold, but then Mitchell announced a new book whose MC had the last name de Zoet, and everything just went out the window. I’m not even exaggerating here, guys. The Bone Clocks is among my top ten novels of all time.

(Oooooh, I should do a list of those, that would be so hard!)

I’m honestly not even really sure how to review all of these because you kind of have to review them individually and then all together? Yeah, I guess that makes sense. Alright, we’ll review in publication order, and then we’ll talk about the fact that all of them connect.

But before we totally dive in, that’s one of the things that you have to know. These connect in so many different ways. They’ve been referred to as Mitchell’s uber novel, and while you definitely don’t need to read all of them to understand each one, there are pieces you’ll 100% miss out on if you don’t. Slade House, for example, is the only one that I think just reads as weird and Lewis Carroll-esque unless you’ve also read The Bone Clocks, and then, man, it’s weird AND it makes sense. But, before we get too deep, let’s look at these each individually.

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Ghostwritten
Published: 2001
★★★★

Ghostwritten was a weird one for me. Admittedly, I don’t remember a ton of it, or the one below, all that much and I’d definitely love to reread them to see what I missed. Both Ghostwritten & number9dream are the two that least effect the overall story. Personally, I feel that Ghostwritten was supposed to be Cloud Atlas, but with less connectivity. Cloud Atlas provides moments that bring each of the characters back to each other, but Ghostwritten is entirely on its own. Yes, some of these characters will appear later, but none of them interact now. And while I love Ghostwritten for that, as a “novel in nine parts,” I also do miss the connectivity that Cloud Atlas, and, ultimately, the rest of this universe, provides. Still, this is a masterpiece of work, and it’s a really interesting jumping point for this universe.

One of my favorite things about this book, and this universe, is the answer to the question on Goodreads, “How should Mitchell’s books be read?”

True devotees read one section at a time, starting with “Okinawa” in Ghostwritten, then “Lost Property” in number9dream, then “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (Part 1)” from Cloud Atlas, and so on until you get to his latest book. Read the first and *last* sections of that, then start working your way back, reading the final sections of everything until you reach “Underground” in Ghostwritten, from whence you loop back around through the second sections of each book.

If he publishes a new book during this process, you have to start again, otherwise it’ll make no sense.

Nic Dafis

To note, I don’t wholly agree with this. They definitely make sense without each other, though the story changes completely when you read them “in order.” It’s like watching Marvel movies in order. Realistically, you’d have to watch parts of a movie at a time. Chronology is overrated sometimes, but it is also kind of nifty when it comes to the way Mitchell has devised his universe. I’ve enjoyed reading them out of order because it becomes like a scavenger hunt.

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number9dream
Published: 2003
★★★

Okay, number9dream is my least favorite Mitchell book, and I’m going to do my best to remember why. Ah, yes! It only follows one narrator. I’m a big multiple narrator fan, but will have no issue with a single narrator book with, of course, the exception of Mitchell’s books. By the time I got to number9dream, I was so accustomed to the wild multiple POV narrative that he had going that being suddenly thrown into a single one was strange. Now, this is a little contradictory because BSG is one of my favorite books by him, and that’s only got one narrator, but BSG gets away with it because I absolutely adore the narrator and we get to see Hugo Lamb for the first time, who is one of my favorite Mitchell characters. All that said, the narrator for number9dream just didn’t quite catch my attention. The story is interesting enough, and I’m invested in it because I’ve already read a few of Mitchell’s books by the time I get around to this, but I also want more. I expect more. And while this is a well-done book, it feels odd placed in the larger universe.

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Cloud Atlas
Published: 2004
★★★★★

Oh boy, Cloud Atlas. Let me tell you a wild story about this book. In college, I took intro & advanced screenwriting, and when the movie for Cloud Atlas was coming out, my professor was absolutely beside himself. He kept shouting about how we had to watch the trailer immediately, and then we watched it about four times in one class. He implored all of us to go see it, and he searched desperately for the screenplay so that we could read it. He had definitely piqued my attention, but what really got me was Ben Whishaw starring in it.

Ben Whishaw is definitely one of my favorite actors, so I knew that I had to see this weird movie. I wanted to read the book first, though, and thus, my introduction to David Mitchell began.

I still stand by the belief that Cloud Atlas is a really good place to start with the larger Mitchell universe. It’s the most removed from all of them, and not even in the way his first two novels are, but it feels like a comprehensive story on its own. It could stand by itself, but, at the same time, it could be so much bigger. Mitchell’s first two novels lack a certain something that makes them feel like they belong solely on their own, and I think they make more sense, not even in a story-sense, just in a reading-sense, when you know that they’re part of something. Cloud Atlas, however, could totally stand on its own. It has a beautiful, riveting story, its characters are unique and incredibly well done, and when you get further into the universe, you end up looking back on it with absolute awe.

Plus, the movie is one of the best adaptations I’ve ever seen.

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Black Swan Green
Published: 2007
★★★★★

BSG! I go back and forth over whether or not this book is my second or third favorite in the universe, and it’s such an interesting one for that slot because nothing happens. Black Swan Green is one of the sleepiest books I’ve ever read, and yet? I literally could not put it down. It was the second Mitchell book I read, and the way he wrote it, the language and the story and the characters, kept me hooked. I wanted so badly to see the MC’s life unfold, even if unfolding meant he just figured out what having a real friend was like. Seriously, this takes place in England in the 80s. Nothing happens in the entire novel. Well, except for Hugo Lamb’s short appearance, which I nowhere near appreciated enough, but you’ve got to cut me some slack, I didn’t know who he was yet.

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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Published: 2010
★★★★★

To say I’m excited about the fact that Mitchell’s new novel features a MC with the last name de Zoet is a serious understatement. Like, the understatement of the year. I am going to lose my shit. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was my fourth Mitchell book (the one below was my third), and I’m really conflicted on order here. I greatly enjoyed reading it after The Bone Clocks because of perspective, but I also think The Bone Clocks would have been WILD if I’d read Jacob de Zoet first, sooooo? I dunno, I think both are good, maybe you just need to reread. Heck, I want to reread all of these so bad before the new one comes out. ANYWAY, I love this book. Jacob de Zoet is such a lovely, sweet narrator, and I always feel so bad for him for all the insanity he’s thrown into. This starts to widen the lens on the story, pulling in pieces that are only explained in below, but it does it in a really unobtrusive way that makes you feel like you’re gently tugging on threads of a massive mythology. You have enough information to understand, but also a yearning to want more. Plus, this is one of the few books that sits in one time period. Many of them jump wildly around, but we get to see just de Zoet’s life and what’s going on at that moment. I found that really cool in order to see Marinus paused in time.

And speaking of Marinus!

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The Bone Clocks
Published: 2014
★★★★★

It’s been six years since this came out??? Gosh, no wonder I’m so desperate for a new book. The Bone Clocks is both my favorite Mitchell book and one of my top ten favorite books of all time. It was the third book of his that I read, and the first time that I realized what he was doing. I distinctly remember texting my friend in all caps like “YOU HAVE TO READ THIS NOW THEY ALL CONNECT OH MY GOD” and then promptly searching for others that had realized the same thing. (Obviously, I was way behind on the times.) And even beyond the fact that Mitchell is just a genius, this book is so good. It’s insanely well written, and the story is so, so good. I was absolutely devoured by it. Like, it’s one of those books that every time someone tried to talk to me while reading it, I was in a complete daze trying to comprehend that they were even a living human being, never mind that they were speaking. This book is just fantastic.

Also, Hugo Lamb. He’s my favorite kind of asshole.

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Slade House
Published: 2015
★★★★

I could really take or leave Slade House. It’s my personal opinion, which I’ve been told many times is stupid, is that it doesn’t make sense without at least The Bone Clocks. Seriously, Marinus appears as the big savior at the end of this book, but if this is your first introduction to Mitchell, you have no idea who Marinus is or why they’re such a big deal. Even what’s happening inside Slade House, conceptually, is really bizarre and nonsensical unless you have a background of at least a little of the universe. Thus, Slade House for me is just an okay book. I enjoyed it, but I felt like it was the first one that couldn’t stand on its own, and that bummed me out.

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Utopia Avenue
Expected: June 2020

Man, don’t even get me started on how excited I am for Utopia Avenue. As I said at the beginning of this post, one of my most hyped releases has totally been tossed away in deference to this. (Obviously, I’m still highkey excited about The Empire of Gold, don’t @ me.) I’ve been waiting for five years for a new Mitchell book, and really, it’s six since Slade House didn’t totally live up to expectations. Not only that, but the MC is going to connect to Jacob de Zoet somehow, and I just??? I AM GOING TO DIE.

Okay, it’s time to talk about the fun stuff. There are a lot of really excellent articles that break down David Mitchell’s ever expanding universe, but one of my favorites is this Vulture article from 2014. Not only does it break down Mitchell’s novels and the journalist’s experience reading them, but it provides this handy dandy character chart! I’m not going to go too in-depth, but the basis is that all of Mitchell’s novels connect. Some of them in small ways (like Felix Finch randomly showing up for a hot second in TBC), some of them in very big ways (like Marinus showing up in THREE separate books), but each novel somehow makes its way into another.

It’s a truly incredible thing that Mitchell has done. None of these books are dependent on one another. They’re not part of a series. You can 100% read The Thousands of Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by itself, and it’s an excellent novel, even without the added bonus of universal knowledge.

I guess one of the things that really gets me with Mitchell’s books was that I never knew you could have a “series,” as it were, without actually having a series, and that has opened so many doors in my own writing. Plus, he’s one of the best writers out there, and he’ll knock your socks right off.

Have you read any David Mitchell? Have I convinced you to now?

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she/her | yoga teacher | Tibetan Buddhism | part-time witch | full-time author | astronaut in a previous life

5 thoughts on “Review: David Mitchell's Uber Novel

  1. I tried reading Cloud Atlas a few years back after watching the movie(it was so good!!), but I couldn’t get past the first chapter 😬. I figured that I picked it up at the wrong time because I was so swamped with school, and I needed to fill my leisurely reading with some light romances hahaha. That sounds so cool that all of Mitchell’s books are related though 😮! It kind of reminds of Netflix’s Black Mirror, how the series is an anthology, but all the stories exist in the same universe. Or that Pixar theory! People think that all the Pixar movies exist in the same universe 😄. Anyways, I love that kind of stuff, so I’m definitely interested in giving Mitchell’s novels a go and finally finishing Cloud Atlas 😄. Awesome post, Mary!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cloud Atlas is definitely a weird one. I’ll be honest, it was a struggle and a half for me to get through the very middle section, but it’s definitely worth it by the end. I definitely recommend Black Swan Green if you want something light/more normal OR Bone Clocks if you want crazy, but not as twisting and weird as Cloud Atlas. I hope you enjoy whenever you pick it back up!

      Like

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