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“Utopia Avenue” by David Mitchell

utopia avenue

Overall I liked this, although I wouldn't put it up there with Mitchell's very best books and I think it does have some weaknesses. I think the biggest issue is the pacing, if we were to use a metaphor from the 60s music scene setting of the book then I think this is more of a sometimes self-indulgent double LP rather than a snappy 3 minute single. It seems to take a very long time introducing the characters and the setting and although there are some dramatic moments throughout the story I think most of the plot seems to happen towards the end of the novel, and it is a fairly long novel. When it does get to them I thought the plot was compelling, although some key moments such as the conclusion of the 'Knock Knock' plotline felt a bit rushed.

What I did like were the characters, something Mitchell has always been good at and I think the book does a good job of both developing their characters and also showing how the relationship builds up between the four band members (and their manager) and how such contrasting characters can work well together. Jasper de Zoet gets what is probably the most interesting plotline and I think is also the most interesting character, someone struggling to understand a world he often finds baffling while also trying to deal with a literal voice in his head. I also like the tie-in to [i]The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet[/i] which is one of my favourite books of the past few years, even if the inclusion of some fantasy elements into what is otherwise a fairly mundane story might confuse people who hadn't read Mitchell's previous books. I thought Elf was the most immediately likeable of the characters and her plotline may not have stakes as high as Jasper's but she still gets a number of good scenes through the book. One thing Mitchell often does well is portrayals of characters who have serious flaws where he doesn't shy away from those flaws but still regards the characters with some sympathy and show that there is some possibility for them to become better, I think Dean Moss is the best example here, he probably has the most typical rock star story of the members of the band and while he does keep making terrible decisions he does have enough redeeming moments to make him interesting to read about.

The book is also filled with cameos, from a mixture of real-world figures from the late 60s musical scene and a few characters from previous Mitchell books. In another book this might not have worked but the impression is gives of everyone in Soho or the Californian music scene knowing each other does feel like something that might have been in a rock biography, so having the characters randomly bumping into David Bowie in the street makes sense in this context.

At one point a character mentions the quote that 'writing about music is like dancing about architecture', and there is something slightly lacking that no matter how much we read about Utopia Avenue's music that we can't hear any of it, but the book is probably doing something right when the reader is left wishing that they could hear the music being described in the book.

Rating : 8 / 10

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