Utopia Avenue is a good book, but it should have been great. Just in case you’re new to David Mitchell, he is a great writer and has earned spurs many times over, and I think that’s why you have to hold his work up to the very highest standards.
Much as I loved reading Utopia Avenue, as I turned over the last page, a small part of me couldn’t help but wonder …what if?
Utopia Avenue is a novel about a rock band trying to make it in the London music scene of the 1960s. Right from the off, it’s littered with references to the characters, sights and sounds of the most vibrant musical movement to sweep across the United Kingdom in the 20th century.
If you like books which are as much homage, as they are story (as I do), and 60s music is your bag, then you’re going to freaking love this novel.
The story revolves around four gifted young musicians, who are brought together by perhaps the only honest music-manger in London… and that sentence right there should tell you nearly everything you need to know about the general drive behind the plot.
Each character embodies a different element/essence of the 1960s scene, and sometimes (being hypercritical) that becomes a little tiresome, because it feels like there was an element of box-ticking involved in their creation.
It’s a forgivable flaw though, because Utopia Avenue isn’t a story designed to blow your mind on some wild journey of revelation; in fact, if you’re sufficiently well informed, the ultimate ending of the book is sign-posted (with the subtly of an advert of the side of a bus) about halfway through.
There’s nothing really surprising about the story, but that doesn’t detract from the fun at all, and that’s the word I’d use to sum up Utopia Avenue above all others: Fun.
Here’s the problem with Utopia Avenue: Horology.
If you’ve read David Mitchell before, you’re well aware of what the word means in the context of his novels. It’s a powerful plot device; compelling, enjoyable, magical and what makes so many of his books wonderfully exceptional…I just wish it didn’t feature in Utopia Avenue.
In an ideal world (one where all the great authors wrote books entirely designed to my taste) David Mitchell would have found a way to split the novel in half; with one book following the journey of Utopia Avenue, while the other told a story of the wider Mitchell-verse.
Really, there’s nothing wrong with the horology elements, and it’s great to see Marinus and Esther Little make appearances; they’re such seriously cool character’s, it felt like bumping into old friends.
In this one particular moment though they’re too cool, too powerful, and too compelling. In the context of Utopia Avenue, their appearance distracts your focus away from the main point of the plot, and causes the story to keep tripping over itself.
Perhaps you’re reading this revenue, having never read another David Mitchell novel, and if that’s the case, believe me, you want to get out there and get yourself a copy of Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks.
I feel sure that if you’ve never encountered horology before, you probably think my criticism is overly harsh (given how the sub-plot surround Jasper de Zoet plays out), and likely loved those aspects of the book.
I re-read Cloud Atlas not long ago, and right now am itching to get stuck into The Bones Clocks for a third time… and there’s where my faint criticism lays; that I didn’t’ come away from Utopia Avenue thinking about Utopia Avenue.
It’s still a wonderful novel, but (for me) it just doesn’t clear the final hurdle to become a great book.
[I really beat the word ‘Horology’ to death above, but I was trying to write the review without spoilers, and figured it the safest way to tip the wink to those of you in the know. I always say this, but if you have any thoughts you’d like to share about U.A. feel free to message me www.twitter.com/LCross137 or email@example.com]