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09Jul

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell review – a musical journey

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

David Mitchell’s eighth novel, Utopia Avenue, arrives both as a distinct and distinctive book, and as a further chapter in the ongoing “metanovel” that constitutes his work to date. At first, it appears closer in theme and style to the semi-autobiographical Black Swan Green than to the giddying, multivalent Cloud Atlas or The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: it is placed firmly and with pleasing particularity in the 1960s, and is in effect a coming-of-age novel. What comes of age is Utopia Avenue, “the most curious British band you’ve never heard of”. The band comprises the middle-class folk singer Elf Holloway, who calls to mind Sandy Denny, and who is cautiously examining her sexuality; Jasper de Zoet, whose genius on lead guitar is compromised by aural hallucinations; Dean Moss, bassist, not yet wrenched out of his traumatising family past; and the drummer Griff, who is of the four the most opaque, though we are assured he is a Yorkshireman.

They are brought together and in due course managed by Levon Frankland, previously seen as a much older man in The Bone Clocks, whose fur hat and blue glasses Dean worriedly parses as those of “a queer beatnik”. An immense cast – drawn from homes in Kent, clubs in the West End and parties in New York – attends the band, as Mitchell traces Utopia Avenue’s uneven trajectory from the Gravesend Working Men’s Club and the bar at Brighton Polytechnic via Italy to Manhattan, which seems from the air to float “on glassy dark, a raft laden with skyscrapers”. The band acquire success, ardent fans and a degree of pleasant notoriety, but not – of course – happiness; and Mitchell is expert at excavating the seams of loss, ambition and mere chance that lie under the edifice of fame. Each member experiences the irresolvable tensions between the demands and rewards of art and ambition, and the opposing forces of duty, failure and sorrow. Death arrives suddenly; love is offered, withdrawn and squandered. The impulse to make music is inexplicable, irresistible and constant.

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