The story begins with Holly Sykes, a love-struck teenager gushing over her first boyfriend in 1984 England. After a vicious fight with her mother, Holly runs away from home and reveals that she has a history of hearing voices and seeing what may be ghosts. Wandering the countryside in self-exile, she encounters strangers whose clues, threats, and mystic wisdom hint at a fantasy universe that remains present but often unseen for the rest of the novel, coursing under the main narrative like an underground river.
When Holly hears that her younger brother has disappeared, she announces her intention to return home. Suddenly, the action, era, and writing style shift abruptly—the David Mitchell experience, ladies and gentlemen—to 1990s Cambridge. Hugo Lamb, our new narrator, is a university sophomore, who looks like a Tommy Hilfiger model and quips like a Tom Stoppard character, sweet-talking his way into bars, scams, and young women’s beds. Mitchell can impersonate just about any voice, but his mimicry of Hugo and his heady, horny Oxbridge classmates is exquisite.
Nothing if not self-aware, Mitchell can’t help but wink at readers with allusions to his prior books. Describing his idea for a novel, Cambridge classmate Richard Cheeseman proposes a story that sounds like a contrivance of Mitchell’s own formula:
“My hero is a Cambridge student called Richard Cheeseman, working on a novel about a Cambridge student called Richard Cheeseman, working on a novel about a Cambridge student called Richard Cheeseman. No one’s ever tried anything like it.”
“Cool,” says Johnny Penhaligon. “That’s sounds like—“
“A frothy pint of piss,” I announce, and Cheeseman looks at me with death in his eyes until I add, “is what’s in my bladder right now. The book sounds incredible, Richard."
Just as Holly and the mystical voices sweep into Hugo’s life, the action springs forward another decade to a Sykes family wedding, where Holly’s husband, an Iraq War reporter, is missing the adrenaline-rush of battle. One hundred pages later, another decade passes, and an over-the-hill novelist resumes the narration, offering a meditation on life’s anti-climaxes, sprinkled with curmudgeonly observations about the lit-crit world.
Holly grows and moves along the periphery of these scenes. So does the fantasy sub-plot, which is about a simmering battle between two species of immortals: benevolent Horologists, who reincarnate in mortal human bodies, and vampiric Anchorites, who preserve their youth by drinking the souls of the living. They torment Holly and seduce other main characters but generally remain bit players in the action, until part five …
Ah, part five. The fantasy core of the novel is many things, at once—a High Noon standoff between immortal time-wizards firing lasers from their foreheads, a compelling fable for our fears of mortality, 140 pages of mesmerizing drama, and a jambalaya of gobbledygook. Entire pages flow like this: