It’s a difficult task to get a reader immersed in a story, rip it away from them mid-flow, replacing it with a completely different story, set in another period, told in another voice. But Mitchell doesn’t just manage this, he repeats the trick four times, before reversing the process in the second half of the book to bring the stories to their conclusions. The stories are supposed to be linked, but the connections are slight and each story could stand alone, without reference to the others. What keeps the page turning is the spellbinding quality of the prose, and Mitchell’s mastery of language.
It’s not flawless, many of the characters are familiar, almost archetypes. In the first story, a naïve traveller in the mid 19th Century, in the second a straight out of Waugh, inter-war dissolute gentleman, in the third an idealistic journalist in the 1970s, trying to be worthy of her dad. The stories also verge towards cliché at times. The third story goes from excruciating tension to a Hollywood style farrago of coincidence, improbable good fortune and unlikely plot twists. The fourth story, set in contemporary Britain has three principle scenes, each of them over the top. Initially a standard lament at the state of modern society, it progresses to a nightmarish incarceration in a retirement home before a frankly ludicrous (albeit entertaining) denouement.
For all its exaggeration though, the middle section is a very effective evocation of the catch 22 of being detained unfairly when every act to free yourself only confirms to your captors that you do belong there. In Victorian times, it might be a lunatic asylum (for example Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith), now it is a retirement home which has to deal with the problems inherent with a society where people live far longer than they can be assimilated within the wider community.
The fifth and sixth stories are set in the future, one in a technological corpocracy where humans are slaves to the corporations, while themselves enslaving a sentient underclass of fabricants. The scenario is plausible, the central character sympathetic but this was the story I engaged with least. Finally, the last story is set in a post-holocaust situation (Z for Zachary?) where humanity has been largely returned to pre-industrial tribal society and the narrative echoes the history that underpinned the first story.
The flaws in plotting and characterisation are almost entirely absent from Mitchell’s writing, which is frankly brilliant and the main reason for reading this book – and why I’ll be trying to track down his other novels.