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Number9Dream by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2001, 428 p.

Number9Dream cover

The difficult second novel. In his, Mitchell seems to have taken the decision to throw any number of things at the wall to see what might stick. It has its moments certainly but while being easy enough to follow on the level of the prose is not quite a straightforward read. It is told in nine sections; Panopticon, Lost Property, Video Games, Reclaimed Land, Study of Tales, Kaiten, Cards, The Language of Mountains is Rain.

The thread it hangs on is the search by Eiji Miyake for his father, who abandoned his mistress, mother to Eiji and his sister Anju, when they were young. Eiji has come to Tokyo from the sticks (an island called Kagoshima) to make himself known. We first find him in a café opposite the PanOpticon building waiting to meet his father’s lawyer, Akiko Katō, an encounter he fantasises about several times. The shifting ground of the novel starts here. From that point on the reader can never be entirely certain which of the incidents we are presented with are supposed to be occurring only within Eiji’s mind and which are meant to be “real”. But his burgeoning relationship with part-time waitress and proficient musician, Ai Imajō, the nape of whose neck is perfect, does give something to grab on to.

We follow the ups and downs of Eiji’s search, through an unfruitful meeting with Ms Katō, another with an ageing admiral from whom he learns his father’s family name is Tsukiyama, and also with his father’s wife and daughter, not to mention his falling into the orbit of the Yakuza and out again. His motives aren’t mercenary. But others find that difficult to believe.

I must say I’ve read a fair bit of Japanese fiction and the characters here – Yakuza perhaps aside, but gangsters are gangsters the world over – don’t follow the behaviour, or speech, patterns of those in books written by Japanese authors. When Mitchell returned to Japan, in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, it was to the country well before its opening to the West, in Napoleonic times, and his Japanese characters seemed to me to behave as such.

You could call Mitchell’s approach playfulness. Or you could call it irritating. At one point Eiji is hiding out from the Yakuza in a house where a novel’s manuscript is lying about. He of course reads it and so we are given extracts. Its main characters are called Goatwriter (himself a writer,) Mrs Comb (one of those “comedy” earthy charlady types with non-received pronunciation,) and Pithecanthropus. Here we are vouchsafed the information that due to a gentleman’s agreement soldiers never fight each other – “They might get hurt,” – and that, “The purpose of war is to kill as many civilians as possible.’” Also, “‘Writing is not about ‘fulfilment!’ Writing is about adoration! Glamour! Awards!’ …. ‘I learned the language of writers, ‘coda’ and ‘conceit’ for ‘ending’ and ‘idea’; ‘tour de force’ instead of ‘the good bit’; ‘cult classic’ instead of ‘this rubbish will never sell’.” This is a novel wherein is made literal the sentence, “Goatwriter’s words stuck in his throat,” and contains the line, “‘A stream of consciousness’ he rejoyced.” All well and good, but it seems more designed to show off the author’s facility with word-play rather than advance either the plot or knowledge of human relationships.

In Number9Dream Mitchell seems to have pushed his conceits as far as he thought he could get away with. (And possibly beyond.) Still, I’d never thought to see the word zwitterion in a literary novel; hats off to that.

Episodes of seriousness do intrude. A Yakuza tells Eiji that straight citizens of Japan are all living in a movie set. “A show is run from the wings, not centre stage. …… In most places the muscle is at the beck and call of the masters. In Japan, we, the muscle, are the masters. Japan is our gig.’”

A hint that this may be considered an altered history comes in an entry in an exquisitely written, intriguing, realistically toned journal supposedly from 1944 of a Tsukiyama ancestor who was a pilot on the kaiten project (the submarine equivalent of the kamikaze) which makes reference to someone who threw himself under a Russian tank with a bomb and also mentions stories of the Soviets’ cruelty in Manchūkuo. In our world the Soviets didn’t declare war on Japan till after Hitler was defeated in 1945. But in a work such as this where so much is invention in the narrator’s mind this could be another example. On the other hand it could simply be a mistake by Mitchell. There is not much solid ground to hang on to here. This is particularly so when, within the ‘present day’ span of the book a huge earthquake strikes the Tokyo area. This, of course, has not happened in the reader’s time-line.

To back this up, towards the end of the book a truck-driver says to Eiji, “‘Trust what you dream. Not what you think,’” and an old woman tells him, “‘Dreams are shores where the ocean of spirit meets the land of matter. Beaches where the yet-to-be, the once-were, the never-will-be may walk amid the still-are,’” which could be Mitchell describing his methods. Later we are told, ‘A dream is a fusion of spirit and matter.’

It turns out Eiji’s favourite John Lennon song is #9Dream “‘It should be considered a masterpiece.’” He fantasises a meeting where Lennon says it’s a descendant of Norwegian Wood. Both are ghost stories. The title means “the ninth dream begins after every ending.”

In a variation of the man stepping into the same river some time later conundrum Eiji thinks, “A book you read is not the same book as before you read it. Maybe a girl you sleep with is not the same girl you went to bed with.” Is this taking philosophical speculation too far?

If you were counting earlier there were only eight named sections. The ninth is untitled and contains solely a blank page. Presumably the dream.

Which only leaves the question, is Number9Dream a ‘tour de force’ or perhaps a ‘cult classic’?

Pedant’s corner:- not every often (very often.) “An aviary of telephones trill” (An aviary trills.) A missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 3,) vocal chords (vocal cords.) “‘What would me pictures be doing there??’” (my pictures,) soccer (it’s football,) “the twelve-yard box” (no such thing in football. Penalty box, or eighteen yard box at a pinch,) Eiji scores a goal direct from a goal-kick (that wouldn’t count, goal kicks are indirect free-kicks,) “the enemy goalposts …. enemy player(s)” (the opposition goalposts …. opponent(s).) “A queue of the hippest people wait outside” (a queue waits.) “Daaimon tells the girls a long story … that make the girls shriek with laughter” (tells a story that makes the girls shriek,) hiccoughs (hiccups; it’s not any kind of cough,) “we are in miniature planetarium” (a miniature planetarium,) “and flashes and enamel smile” (an enamel smile.) “A garage band rehearse” (a band rehearses.) “Inside are a whole row of” (is a whole row,) “‘And will his trousers needing pressing’” (need.) “The string section bask in the applause” (the string section basks.) “The clatter and glitter of cascading silver balls hypnotize the ranks of drones” (the clatter and glitter hypnotizes.) “The crowd drain away” (the crowd drains away,) eidelweiss (edelweiss,) “he tobaggoned down the crater” (tobogganed.) “How do you write a letter a real private detective?” (to a real private detective,) “with an cane” (a cane.) “A coven of wives blowhole laughter” (a coven blowholes laughter.) “None of are eager to” (None of us is eager to,) “life-sized statute” (statue,) “I saw than Shiomi’s eyes” (that,) military bace (base,) “we all knew knew” (omit a “knew”.) “He neck is” (his neck,) “a crowd of very busy people surge in” (a crowd surges in,) “‘people use to build Tokyo’” (used to,) vortexes (vortices.) “One set of hands frisk me while another set holds my arms” (note that failure of subject to agree with verb in the first clause with no such failure in the second clause; it ought to be ‘one set frisks me’,) “the three men also sat at the card table” (the three men seated at, or sitting at,) “wracked with relief and guilt” (racked,) “handwriting is an clear as malice” (is as clear,) “the enemy are tracking me” (the enemy is tracking me.) “A row of men in uniforms occupy the urinals” (a row of men occupies the urinals.)

Reelin’ In the Years 145: Hold Your Head Up. RIP Jim Rodford, Hugh Masekela and Mark E Smith

What a week this has been. It’s like 2016 came back again.

First Jim Rodford of Argent (and later The Kinks and the re-formed Zombies) then Jimmy Armfield, Hugh Masekela, Ursula Le Guin and Mark E Smith of The Fall.

Jimmy Armfield was an almost forgotten member of a certain England football World Cup squad but had a follow-up career as a manager in which he took Leeds United to the European Cup final where they were diddled out of a win by some dodgy refereeing but crowd trouble took some shine off the team’s efforts and later as a commenter on BBC radio’s football coverage.

I’m not much into jazz but was aware Hugh Masekela was an impressive musician, and equally important for his standing in the anti-apartheid movement.

I posted about Ursula Le Guin on Wednesday 24/1/2018. There were two articles about her in yesterday’s Guardian. This one by Alison Flood and Benjamin Lee plus David Mitchell’s appreciation.

The Fall is a band I didn’t follow (they were a bit after my time) but some folks swear by them. By all accounts Mark E Smith was a particularly exacting taskmaster.

Argent’s biggest hit was Hold Your Head Up from 1972. This is a TV performance from 1973.

Argent: Hold Your Head Up

Below are two samples of Masekela in performance.

Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela: Soweto Blues

Hugh Masekela: Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela.)

And here’s The Fall’s cover of the Holland-Dozier-Holland song There’s a Ghost in My House, which gave them their highest UK chart placing.

The Fall: There’s a Ghost in My House

James Walter Rodford: 7/7/1941 – 20/1/2018. So it goes.
James Christopher Armfield: 21/9/1935 – 22/1/2018. So it goes.
Hugh Ramapolo Masekela: 4/4/1939 – 23/1/2018. So it goes.
Mark Edward Smith: 5/3/1957 – 24/1/2018. So it goes.

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

A Novel in Nine Parts. Sceptre, 1999, 446 p.

Ghostwritten cover

The novel is true to its sub-title. The first eight parts are all narrated in the first person from the respective viewpoints of a brain-washed cult member, perpetrator of a gas attack in a Japanese subway (in thrall to His Serendipity); a young half-Korean worker in a Tokyo shop selling jazz records; a compromised English banker in Hong Kong; a woman whose misfortune it was to live in China through most of the Twentieth Century; a mind-dwelling entity who can transmigrate from person to person by touch; a gallery attendant in the Hermitage, St Petersburg, who is an agent of an art-stealing syndicate; a London-dwelling, womanising ghostwriter; a female Irish physicist with the key to making atomic weapons worthless; and to round off we have transcripts from the broadcasts of Night Train FM, 97.8 ‘til late. The last two are awfully familiar but I can’t put my finger on from where (beyond the section set in Ireland in the same author’s The Bone Clocks.)

At first the connections between the parts seem tenuous, that between one and two is a misplaced phone call, between two and three seems to be a reference to the couple embarking on a love affair in part two, but gradually, the more sections come into play, the more resonances between them build up. Still, the Queen Anne chair mentioned in Hong Kong and a biography of His Serendipity seem lobbed into the London section when they arrive, gratuitous intrusions; the Music of Chance is the name of the ghostwriter’s band but also occurs as a phrase in a later section. Each part, though, is wonderfully written, suspending disbelief is never difficult – except in the case of the transmigrating mind entity, an interpolation of the fantastic which seems at odds with the realistic tone of the other parts. But then we find the fulcrum on which the novel comes to turn is a process called quantum cognition. This is not merely smuggling quantum physics into the literary landscape but making it the book’s focus – a piece of bravery (or potential folly) in a first novel which almost makes the previous mind-hopping seem mundane. “Evolution and history are the bagatelle of particle waves,” is not the sort of comparison common in literary texts.

Asides like, “For a moment I had an odd sensation of being in a story that someone was writing,” or “I added ‘writers’ to my list of people not to trust. They make everything up,” is perhaps over-egging the pudding, however. “Humans live in a pit of cheating, exploiting, hurting, incarcerating. Every time, the species wastes some part of what it could be. This waste is poisonous,” is a pessimistic view of humanity. The last bit is always worth repeating, though.
The pessimism is carried on by phrases like, “‘Loving somebody’ means ‘wanting something’. Love makes people do selfish, moronic, cruel and inhumane things,” but “‘womanisers are victims – unable to communicate with women any other way. They either never knew their mother or never had a good relationship with her,’” is more compassionate. The killer line follows as the womaniser is told, ‘I don’t quite know what you want from us. But it’s something to do with approval.’”

At one point one of the narrators says, “Italians give their cities sexes…. London’s middle-aged and male, respectably married but secretly gay.” I suspect all cities are secretly gay. “The USA is even crazier than the rest of humanity,” is either a prescient thesis or one now in the process of hard testing.

Ghosts, of memories and of sentience, begin to permeate the book. “Memories are their own descendants masquerading as the ancestors of the present,” while, “The act of memory is an act of ghostwriting….. We all think we’re in control of our own lives, but really they’re pre-ghostwritten by forces around us,” which leads to, “The real drag about being a ghostwriter is you never get to write anything beautiful.” Pessimism again.

But, “Technology is repeatable miracles.” That is the age in which we live.

I read in a recent(ish) review (of Slade House?) the opinion that Ghostwritten is still the best Mitchell has done. Not for me, of the ones I have read that would be The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet but in Ghostwritten I found the intrusion of the fantastical elements took away from the whole. Perhaps if they had been fully present from the start – part one is in the viewpoint of a delusion sufferer, true, but it is only the later parts which suggest it may not be a delusion – I would have felt differently, but I suppose in that case Mitchell might not have found a publisher. It’s brilliantly written and the characterisation is superb, but paradoxically, I thought Ghostwritten came to something less than the sum of its parts.

Pedant’s corner:- “The rest of for ever in a cell” (forever,) in paper bag (in a paper bag,) the owner of the greengrocers across the street (greengrocer’s) he jubilated (as an example to be avoided of an alternative to “he said” that is an absolute cracker,) I stunk (stank,) flack (flak,) uppercutted (uppercut?) leeched (leached,) emporers (emperors,) wracked (racked,) a group of … were waiting (was,) “There are less than one hundred left” (fewer than,) noncorpi (Mitchell’s previous plural form for noncorpum was noncorpa.) “like a virus within a bacteria” (bacterium,) reindeers (reindeer,) Ulan-Bator (Ulan Bator,) more muscle that (than,) a trio were playing … (a trio was playing,) some passersbys (passersby,) Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) staunch (stanch,) acquatic (aquatic,) the only good thing about Oxford Street are (things; or “is”,) I’d betted (bet – used 12 lines above!) Kyrgistan (nowadays spelled Kyrgyztan,) scaley (scaly,) wrapped into ((wrapped in,) Maise (Maisie – but it may have been an affectionate diminutive,) “A Lighter Shade of Pale” (Whiter,) “ ‘We skipped the last fandango” (light fandango.) “The only words for technology is “here”, or “not here” (The only words are,) “in Dr Bell and my case” (in Dr Bell’s and my case,) the aerobatic corp (corps,) practise (practice,) Freddy Mercury (Freddie,) coup d’etats (coups d’etat,) the Brunei’s (the Bruneis.)

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2015, 620 p, plus 4 p notes on reappearing characters and 4 p author interview.

 The Bone Clocks cover

In The Bone Clocks Mitchell is essaying something similar to his earlier novel Cloud Atlas which also had episodes spanning over time into the future but the six first-person-narrated-in present-tense novellas here are not enleaved within one another nor returned to later as they were in that earlier book but rather follow in chronological sequence; 1984, 1991, 2004, 2015-2020, 2025, 2043. The narratives of Hugo Lamb, Ed Brubeck, Crispin Hershey and Dr Marinus (in the guise of Dr Iris Fenby) are bookended by two from Holly Sykes, who appears in every novella and whose overall life story the book therefore chronicles.

We meet Holly at fifteen years old when she is in the throes of her first love affair, besotted with car salesman Vincent Costello, and at odds with her mother. In her childhood, until treated by Dr Marinus, Holly had heard voices, whom she called the Radio People. Her much younger brother Jacko is also touched by strangeness, old beyond his years. The crisis of this first section is precipitated by Holly’s discovery of Vince’s faithlessness and subsequent running away from home. Classmate Ed Brubeck brings her back with the news that Jacko has disappeared too. Mitchell’s delineation of the teenage Holly and her character is so immersive that the fantastical elements of Holly’s existence feel like intrusions, as if coming from some altogether different story.

Jump to 1991 where “posh boy” Hugo Lamb is holidaying in a Swiss ski resort with his even posher mates. He boasts to them he has never fallen in love (despite having had many lovers) but his meeting with an equally commitment-shy Holly after an accident on a ski-slope changes all that. A happy ending is precluded, though, when Lamb is recruited by the Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Monastery of Sidelhorn Pass, practitioners of the psychosoterica of the Shaded Way. These fantastical aspects appear almost shoe-horned in so at odds are they with Lamb’s (again brilliantly rendered) persona.

By 2004 Holly has a child, Aoife, fathered by third narrator Ed Brubeck, by now a lauded war journalist. When Aoife disappears from their hotel room at a wedding bash, Holly has a fit of sorts and channels a voice, which resolves the situation. The dynamics of Ed and Holly’s relationship are superbly depicted as are the chaos and exigencies of war-torn Baghdad.

The fourth narrator is Crispin Hershey, once the Wild Man of British Letters but struggling to make a living. He comes across the now single Holly (Ed Brubeck’s luck in bomb-dodging having run out) at writers’ events after she has written a book of memoirs titled The Radio People. Deeply sceptical about her experiences Hershey also witnesses one of Holly’s channelling episodes.

The fifth segment contains the book’s climax as narrated by Dr Iris Fenby Marinus, the latest incarnation of Dr Marinus. She/he is an atemporal, or horologist. When she/he dies he/she will wake up in a new body forty-nine days later, usually with a sex-change. Among horologist’s attributes are telepathy, suasion, hiatusing others, scanning minds and everlasting life (with terms and conditions.) The atemporals are in conflict with the Anchorites of the Blind Cathar who can only achieve immortality by draining the psychosoteric energy of adepts and drinking the Black Wine so produced. Holly aids in the final conflict with the help of a labyrinth in a pendant left to her by Jacko. This is the most fantastical of the six novellas and stands in contrast to the others as its focus lies mainly on action.

The last, 2043, section adds nothing much to the overall story but finds Holly retired to Ireland and looking after her two orphaned grandchildren. It does, though, succeed in portraying a very believable post-oil, globally-warmed, electricity deprived world fallen apart (unless blessed with geothermal power plants as in Iceland.)

The Bone Clocks manages to contain its own critique: at one point Lamb thinks, “‘The Mind-walking Theory, plausible if you live in a fantasy novel.’” Then there is the quote from a review of Crispin Hershey’s come-back novel where Richard Cheeseman says, “the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look,” and “what surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?” – which is precisely what one could say of Mitchell here except that Mitchell’s writing is superb, mellifluous and engaging – each narrative drags you along – but the gradually uncovered fantastical elements are too in conflict with the realistic treatment, seem too tagged on to be credible. By the time we get to the meat of Marinus’s section disbelief is all but impossible to suspend and the whole begins to seem a bit pointless. I began to wonder if Mitchell was somehow playing a joke on all his mainstream readers who would not knowingly read a fantasy novel. Mitchell’s touch also deserted him with his use of “device” as a verb for texting somebody (or texting’s future equivalent.) Then too there were the intertextual meta-fictional games in the mentions of Black Swan Green and de Zoet and Mitchell’s laying out in a Crispin Hershey lecture of, “The perennial tricks of the writers’ trade dating back to the Icelandic sagas. Psychological complexity, character development, the killer line to end a scene, villains blotched with virtue, heroic characters speckled with villainy, foreshadow and flashback, artful misdirection.” Hershey also observes, “What Cupid gives, Cupid takes away. Men marry women hoping they’ll never change. Women marry men hoping they will. Both parties are disappointed.”

The 2015 narrative mentions ex-President Bashar-al-Azad of Syria and in the 2043 one the nuclear power station at Hinkley Point has been updated by the Chinese but recently suffered a meltdown. The first (and perhaps now both) of these would turn the book into an altered history.

Mitchell can certainly write and creates compelling characters. The Bone Clocks however does not reach the heights that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet did.

Pedant’s corner:- must of (must have. OK it was in a character’s voice but even so; authors owe a duty to their readers not to mangle the language unnecessarily,) heat-seeker missile (the term is heat-seeking missile; but again it was in voice,) and and (only one “and” required,) a plethora pass through (passes, but it was in dialogue,) medieval (mediaeval,) Saint Agnès’ (Saint Agnès’s,) “I’ve find I’ve forgotten” (I find,) the the (only one the necessary,) anciliary (ancillary – or was it a confusion with auxiliary?) homeopathy (homoeopathy,) tying ropes around painted steel cleats, “a T-shirt emblazoned with Beckett’s fail better quote I was given in Santa Fe” (reads as if the narrator was given a quote in Santa Fe,) ‘I consider jerking off again’ (the British term is “wanking”,) a Taser (does that need to be capitalised any more?) Hershey narrates his meeting with Hugo Lamb and then Lamb’s redaction of his memory of it; so how could he relate it to us? “A leaf loop-the-loops” (loops-the-loop,) St James’ church (St James’s,) superceded (superseded,) modii (is meant as a plural of modus, so “modi”,) maw (used for mouth, [sigh….]) in the the pram (remove a “the”,) embarass (embarrass,) sailboat (sailing boat.) In the author interview:- “set in Iceland” (it was actually Ireland.)

My 2015 in Books

This has been a good year for books with me though I didn’t read much of what I had intended to as first I was distracted by the list of 100 best Scottish Books and then by the threat to local libraries – a threat which has now become a firm decision. As a result the tbr pile has got higher and higher as I continued to buy books and didn’t get round to reading many of them.

My books of the year were (in order of reading):-
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Electric Brae by Andrew Greig
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson
Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman
The Affair in Arcady by James Wellard
Flemington and Tales from Angus by Violet Jacob
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi
Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison
The Bridge Over the Drina by Ivo Andrić
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
The Dear, Green Place by Archie Hind
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson
The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Born Free by Laura Hird
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

If you were counting that’s 25 in all, of which 15 were by male authors and 10 by women, 8 had SF/fantasy elements and 11 were Scottish (in the broadest sense of inclusion.)

David Mitchell and Ursula Le Guin

David Mitchell (for my reviews of whose Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet click on the links) has written an article very appreciative of Ursula Le Guin and published in Saturday’s Guardian. It seems it was Le Guin who inspired Mitchell to become a writer.

Well, there’s always someone to blame. In my case it was Robert Silverberg; but Le Guin came a close second – and that only because I came to her later.

Mitchell puts Le Guin’s Earthsea in the Fantasy world’s super league along with Tolkein and now George RR Martin. He argues Earthsea is a superior creation to Middle Earth. Since I never managed to get past book one of Lord of the Rings (probably because I came to it in my late rather than early teens) I would have to concur.

Though Mitchell doesn’t actually rank them against each other I would also place Earthsea above Martin’s Westeros since that world is too focused on violence and its source material is more obvious. Le Guin’s seems to have sprung out of her own imagination and experiences.

The first book in Le Guin’s Earthsea sequence has apparently now been given a Folio Society edition.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2011, 564 p.

The Thousand Autumns of Jocab de Zoet cover

This novel has been described in a quote on the back cover as a tour de force and I must say it is likely to remain in my mind for a long time. It will certainly figure in my best of the year even if this is still only February.

The Jacob de Zoet of the title is a Dutchman who, in order to prove his worthiness to marry his sweetheart Anna, is out to make his fortune in the Dutch trading mission on the island of Dejima off Nagasaki at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (CE) – during the Tokugawa Shogunate, when all other European contacts were banned, as was travel abroad for Japanese. The present tense narration is in the third person, save for a single chapter in first person from the point of view of a slave in the Dutch trading post. Woven into the tale is the history of relations between Japan and the outside world up to that point. While the novel is roughly based on incidents that took place on Dejima around that time I would hazard that the part of the plot involving the Lord Abbot Enomoto is not.

The first part of the novel outlines de Zoet’s endeavours in exposing the various corruptions of previous Chiefs of the post and his interactions with Japanese translators. Reading about the difficulties of translation between Japanese and Dutch in a third language – English – is a bit surreal. The very first chapter, however, introduces us to Aibagawa Orito, the disfigured daughter of a samurai, who is learning to be a midwife under the tutelage of the Dutch doctor at Dejima. Her path and de Zoet’s cross and, despite feelings of guilt at betraying Anna, Jacob becomes attracted to Orito. His hopes in affairs of the heart and commerce are both soon dashed. In the second section, where Aibagawa Orito has been taken away to the religious institution run by the Lord Abbot, the novel takes a sudden left turn as this middle part of the book deals solely with her plight and the efforts of her Japanese admirer, the interpreter, Ogawa Uzaemon, to free her. The third and concluding part of the novel returns us to Dejima as well as on to the British frigate which arrives to attempt to take advantage of the fall of the Netherlands to Napoleon’s armies.

The book is unusual in that it contains a number of illustrations, mostly anatomical but also two townscapes – well, one townscape and a shrinescape – plus some of “de Zoet’s” sketches of Origo.

While reading I was struck by certain parallels with Science Fiction. There is a type of SF story which also has an isolated trading/diplomatic post many months (or years) travel from home, dealing with and trying to understand a different culture. In Origo’s captivity we have different SF parallels but they are even more marked, as the Sheranui Shrine is a closed society with its own rules and a menace at its heart.

The characters, especially the Japanese, impress. Care and detail is lavished both on them and on the background. Even the minor ones have the ring of truth. That short first person chapter includes a meditation on the internal autonomy of slaves. One member of the Dutch mission tells de Zoet, “Tain’t good intentions that pave the road to hell; it’s self-justifyin’s.” There is also towards the end a very rhythmic paragraph listing the lives/occupations of the inhabitants of Nagasaki which is reminiscent of Auden’s The Night Mail in its metre and rhyming. Then there was the almost impenetrable phrase, “A smoke-dried Dane makes Finn’s Cock of a tangled Vang,” which seems to entangle nautical terms with the history of the times.

A tour de force? It was certainly fascinating and absorbing throughout, likely to remain with me for a long time.

Pedant’s corner:- “A well-travelled round of Edam and sour apples are divided,” (a round is singular;) snonky appears to be a coinage by Mitchell; wistaria (apparently a variant of the more usual wisteria) was repeated several times; “the pair enjoys,” (again; a pair is singular) guarding this natural revile (revile here is in the sense of ravine but I can’t find such a definition anywhere.)

Girl Reading by Katie Ward

Virago, 2012, 342 p

A young girl brought up in a 14th century foundling hospital in Siena is asked to be the model for the Virgin Mary in a painting of the Annunciation. A mute Dutch serving maid accidentally inspires her master to paint her in the act of reading. The completion of a portrait of her dead lesbian lover reconciles a reclusive countess to her loss. One of a pair of identical twin women, a medium, comes to the other, a photographer’s widow now running the business, for a set of cartes de visite. A fifteen year old girl who fancies she is in love with an unmarried artist ten years her senior tries to impress him by painting a picture of her hostess. An MP’s assistant whose personal life has just become uncertain allows her photograph to be taken in a wine bar. A career woman in 2060 misses her family.

Apart from being within the covers of the one book what do all these seven different novella length stories whose settings are spread in time over 600 years have in common? This is presented as a novel so we are presumably being invited to make connections in a way that a book set out as a story collection would not invite. Yet, stylistically, thematically and in plot terms, there is no overt connection between them – except that they all feature images of female literacy. The potted précis given above are, by the way, the least of what each novella conveys.

Each is a slice of life, fully imagined. Every character in them is sympathetically portrayed, feels real. Ward’s control is impressive, she rarely puts a word wrong. (I did wonder however if the phrase “the exception that proves the rule” was really in use in 14th century Italy.)

The last – which was the least convincing in its setting (being a reader of SF I would say that) – tries to force the issue as it features a device known as Sibil (Sensory Immersion Bioscript Interface Locus) which can make its users feel the stories behind the genesis of six images. Those six happen to be the ones we have just read about.

There are, of course, similarities here not only to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas in that within the book there is more than one tale with settings in eras spread from the past to the future but also, in its referencing of paintings, to John Banville’s Athena.

Ward’s seven tales have a stylistic quirk in that all of the dialogue is rendered in plain text, not in quotation marks, and is only distinguishable from its surroundings by context and tone. This could be a disaster in the wrong hands – even when conventionally rendered, back and forth dialogue can be tricky for some authors to set down clearly enough – but is never a problem here. Another commonality is that the meat of a tale is sometimes prefaced by an earlier incident in its subjects’ lives.

There could, of course, have been a practical reason for the book’s unusual structure. The conventional wisdom is that short story collections don’t sell. Well if you dress them up as a single novel that problem evaporates.

Such a cynical view would be less than kind. Girl Reading is excellent stuff. It serves as a warning “hard formats are the only ones that survive in the long run,” and a reminder of the importance of physical objects, especially the book. Well, all bibliophiles will agree to that.

Addendum:- A note on the paintings which inspired Ward is here along with links to the images.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2004. 529p

Cloud Atlas has an unusual structure consisting of six separate narratives all in different styles – journal, epistolary, thriller, realist (for want of a better term,) interrogation transcript and memoir, wrapped round each other in a way which the author compares at one point to a matrioshka (what in my youth was called a Russian) doll and another as a successive series of interrupted musical phrases which are recapitulated and developed – in order – later. The second is a more accurate comparison as the tales are not truly enveloped one within the other. I would rather say they are ensleeved. (Or even enleaved: as in a book.)

While each section is perfectly fine on its own the connections Mitchell makes between them can be a touch tenuous; even a little forced. The breaks between the sections sometimes, disconcertingly at first, occur in mid-sentence; which admittedly is a brave move.

In order the stories concern a nineteenth century American heading back across the Pacific to the Californian gold rush; a post-Great War English musician acting as an amanuensis to a better known ex-patriate composer; a 1970s female reporter getting herself in too deep in a conspiracy involving a nuclear power company; a small time (contemporary?) English publisher, who is fleeing from gangster-like creditors, being trapped in a care home for the elderly; a fabricant (cloned) slave in a Future Korea who is “transcended” for revolutionary purposes; and an apologia pro vita sua from a man in an even further future post-lapsarian Hawaii.

The latter two segments employ distorted language. The Korean set one has “x” where we have “ex” (for example “xample” and “inxistent”) and stripped down spelling (“brite”) while the Hawaiian section is written in a more extremely evolved language – reminiscent of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker – which is strange to read at first but soon becomes familiar. The inclusion of these two narratives allows the novel as a whole to be considered Science Fiction, and categorised by me as such, though Mitchell may disclaim the description.

Each of the six sections is totally self-consistent and does not depend on any of the others for its individual resolution and each is as engaging as the next. Mitchell’s ability to portray character and deliver plot is unquestionable.

The over-arching structure could be viewed as an excuse to cobble together six novellas which might have been unremarkable if kept separate; but that would be a little harsh. While it certainly demonstrates Mitchell’s mastery of various writing styles, whether it constitutes a coherent whole is another matter.

Cloud Atlas is an impressive enterprise, though, whichever way you consider it. A true novel if you will, worth anyone’s reading time.

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