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Utopia Avenue Reviews

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

Utopia Avenue

David Mitchell

3.13 out of 5

12 reviews

Imprint: Sceptre
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publication date: 14 Jul 2020
ISBN: 9781444799422

'One of the most brilliantly inventive writers of this, or any country' (Independent) turns his unique eye on the dark end of the 1960s in his enthralling new novel, a story of music, dreams, drugs and madness, love and grief, stardom's wobbly ladder and fame's Faustian pact.

  • The GuardianBook of the Day
4 stars out of 5
Sarah Perry
10 Jul 2020

"This portrait of a 60s band on the rise conveys the spirit of the age with gleeful energy"

The novel’s prose is for the most part consciously easeful and frictionless: it is a supremely readable novel, if the quality of readability is taken to be one which is difficult to achieve and a relief to encounter. It is enlivened by an attentive eye for the particulars, as when “rudderless cloud-wrecks float by, unmoored”, or when, at a dinner party, “served in a pea-green porcelain boat, the mussel shells are blue-black on the outside and flint-grey inside … candles are beeswax, linen is starched, cutlery is heavy”. At times, the frictionless quality of the prose extends to the story itself, so that it is possible to read for several pages at a time without quite feeling that events and characters have landed on the consciousness.


4 stars out of 5
Erica Wagner
26 Aug 2020

"a band Bildungsroman in the Swinging Sixties"

Occasionally there are hints of what feels like self-indulgence. Of course David Bowie is coming up the stairs, and of course he has words of wisdom to impart; the same can be said, in this novel, for Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen and Jerry Garcia. Towards the end of the book Allen Klein, notorious manager of both the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, hands Dean his card but Dean and the band stick with Moonwhale Music. Phew! That was a narrow squeak. There are perhaps a few too many of these encounters, but – especially in 2020, when any sighting of Bowie is welcome – I was willing to forgive. Utopia Avenue, rock on. 

4 stars out of 5
25 Jul 2020

"A master storyteller brings to life the Swinging Sixties"

Mitchell is a master storyteller, and his easy style is a delight on the ear, especially as the narrator Andrew Wincott brings out the individual natures of the four young wannabes at the heart of the novel with great sensitivity.

It’s a novel that, although over-long and at times overwritten, is a fascinating disquisition on the nature of making soul music. 

2 stars out of 5
Alex Preston
19 Jul 2020

"The acclaimed author of Cloud Atlas hits a bum note with this hackneyed story of a band in the late 1960s"

The problem is, of course, that Mitchell expects us all to be as delighted as he clearly is by these cameos, rather than recognising them for what they are: attempts to breathe life into a story that is both predictable and stultifying. It is notoriously difficult to write well about music in a novel – Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity was fab and Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet dazzling in parts – but Utopia Avenue is almost unremittingly dreary. It’s interesting that the novel charts an era when musicians began to take themselves increasingly seriously, and when their songs grew longer and more portentous – average track-lengths passed the three-minute mark in 1967. Utopia Avenue is like an endless piece of prog-rock noodling – fine if you’re stoned in the late 60s, but painfully out of place in the here and now.

4 stars out of 5
18 Jul 2020

"David Mitchell’s first foray into rock novels is a nostalgic, enjoyable read"

It is notoriously difficult to capture the thrill of playing music, much less describe the music itself, in prose, but Mitchell succeeds for the most part, although he does rely on quoting lyrics as much as musical expertise to get this point across. Despite the idealisation of the band’s internal workings, this is an enjoyable read for anyone who likes music and is interested in the period. “Utopia” is, after all, “no place”, and remains an aspiration even if it is unrealisable in reality.

2 stars out of 5
Claire Allfree
16 Jul 2020

"Mitchell is always a companionable author to spend time with but, as each new novel passes, one can’t help but wonder if his best days are behind him."

While Mitchell stuffs this with period detail, his narrative is ploddingly episodic. A large cast that includes John Lennon and David Bowie doesn’t so much add authenticity as compound the nigglingly ersatz quality of the writing.

Mitchell is always a companionable author to spend time with but, as each new novel passes, one can’t help but wonder if his best days are behind him.

4 stars out of 5
Peter Kemp
12 Jul 2020

"This vibrant tale, set in the world of 1960s rock music, is a triumph"

Utopia Avenue has links with other Mitchell novels too. What makes it a stand-out triumph is the vibrant flair with which it recreates an era, the acuteness with which it explores composition and performance, and its often witty (“An American moon … wedged between two skyscrapers, like a nickel fallen down a crack”) verbal finesse.

4 stars out of 5
James Walton
12 Jul 2020

"This exhilarating portrait of youth, optimism and music in an unforgettable decade shows Mitchell back at his best"

Of course, these are not especially original insights into the 1960s. But then again, original thoughts have always taken second place in Mitchell’s work to his highly original ways of expressing them. (After all its pyrotechnics, the author’s message in Cloud Atlas was essentially that love is better than hate.) So it is that Utopia Avenue confirms that his real talent — perhaps even genius — lies in finding wildly entertaining new ways to tell old truths. All we need now, I would suggest, is that he gives the Horologists the next book off…

2 stars out of 5
Daniel Mendelsohn
10 Jul 2020

"When all is said and done — and nearly 600 pages adds up to a lot of saying and doing — “Utopia Avenue” is astonishingly clichéd."

The problem isn’t that all this isn’t true; it’s that these and many other “insights” into music and culture are not only sayable but have been said, very often and more persuasively. The grubby beginnings, the search for artistic expression, the threat of commercialism, the lure of fame, money, drugs, the lectures on “art” — all this is familiar from a vast literature of rock (Don DeLillo’s “Great Jones Street,” Roddy Doyle’s “The Commitments,” Jonathan Lethem’s “You Don’t Love Me Yet,” to name just a few) and an even vaster filmography (the Beatles films, “The Rose,” “Purple Rain,” etc.). When all is said and done — and nearly 600 pages adds up to a lot of saying and doing — “Utopia Avenue” is astonishingly clichéd. Until, that is, you get to the end, where, as Mitchell fans might expect, a bizarre surprise is waiting.

2 stars out of 5
Johanna Thomas-Corr
3 Jul 2020

"any poetry or tension is drowned by the excess of detail"

Since Mitchell is known for his offbeat, genre-bending, postmodern epics, I assumed he would find a new point of attack in Utopia Avenue — so it’s a surprise to discover him clapping so doggedly on the onbeat. Which is to say, this book is not cool and, when you’re writing about the golden age of rock music, cool matters. Mitchell’s project soon reveals itself as a bland, self-satisfied nostalgia-fest that rarely strives beyond cliché. It’s the apotheosis of 50-Quid Bloke collectionmania, all the back issues of Mojo mulched into one 576-page edition. It wants to be a Mad Men-style prestige drama — but it’s more like a tame soap opera made by Richard Curtis that goes wildly over budget.

3 stars out of 5
3 Jul 2020

"Those expecting narrative pyrotechnics to match the phantasmagorical times will be disappointed"

These clumsy attempts at verisimilitude have the opposite of their intended effect, distracting us from the various dramas affecting the members of the band: a couple of deaths, some small-scale organised crime, various identity crises, and, most affectingly, the hallucinations suffered by Jasper. These are all well-enough described to keep us turning the page, but have a kind of soap-opera relentlessness about them. Mitchell disappointingly shirks the challenge of grounding them in a more sophisticated way in the epochal changes of the time.

4 stars out of 5
1 Jul 2020

"David Mitchell’s superb eighth novel"

Overall, though, Utopia Avenue is enormous fun, and you can tell Mitchell had fun writing it. Although it evokes the darkness and dirtiness of a perverse, exploitative world, his writing manages to convey an irresistible optimism, curiosity and hunger for life. There are haunting moments (the death of Holloway’s baby nephew leads to possibly the most affecting sequence Mitchell has ever written) and predation remains a central theme, but this is a celebratory page-turner. If it’s not quite his Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (the game-changer remains Cloud Atlas), it could well be his Revolver – a more accessible work that vies with his best.