Utopia Avenue (2020) by David Mitchell

‘Sure. But reality creeps in wherever you live, however pretty the flowers are, however blue the sky, however great the parties. The only people who actually live in dreams are people in comas.’

Publisher’s Synopsis

Utopia Avenue are the strangest British band you’ve never heard of. Emerging from London’s psychedelic scene in 1967 and fronted by folksinger Elf Holloway, guitar demigod Jasper de Zoet and blues bassist Dean Moss, Utopia Avenue released only two LPs during its brief and blazing journey from the clubs of Soho and draughty ballrooms to Top of the Pops and the cusp of chart success, to glory in Amsterdam, prison in Rome and a fateful American fortnight in the autumn of 1968.

David Mitchell’s new novel tells the unexpurgated story of Utopia Avenue; of riots in the streets and revolutions in the head; of drugs, thugs, madness, love, sex, death, art; of the families we choose and the ones we don’t; of fame’s Faustian pact and stardom’s wobbly ladder. Can we change the world in turbulent times, or does the world change us? Utopia means ‘nowhere’ but could a shinier world be within grasp, if only we had a map?

My Thoughts

Utopia Avenue is very readable. It’s the first time in a while that I’ve completed a 500+ page book in under a week. That might sound slow to you, but it’s a very good reading pace for me😉. I have always enjoyed reading Mitchell’s prose. He seems able to write effortlessly in multiple characters’ voices; a skill he demonstrated in his first published novel Ghostwritten back in 1999. As with that book, Mitchell had me invested in his main characters right from the start.

In Utopia Avenue, there are fewer main characters than in earlier novels such as Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten, and The Bone Clocks. The rock band Utopia Avenue is made up of four members plus their manager, Levon. Chapters focus on different members of the band, depending on who wrote the song used as the chapter title. So, the songwriters Dean (bass guitar), Elf (piano/organ) and Jasper (lead guitar) get the majority of the chapters. Griff, the drummer, is treated like a drummer and remains–mostly–in the background.

As I mentioned before, all the characters are written well, but I enjoyed reading both Dean and Jaspers’ chapters the most. Bassist Dean has had a challenging past coping with a dismissive and occasionally abusive father. Is he cursed to repeat the same mistakes as his dad or can he shake off the shackles of his upbringing? Lead guitarist Jasper has lived through a complicated childhood which lacked familial affection as well as a mother figure. Mitchell writes him as an intriguing character who struggles to emotionally connect with the people in his life. Jasper has an uncomfortable habit of saying exactly what he’s thinking, which leads to some memorable moments in the tale. He also comes out with some moments of spoken wisdom, or is it madness?..

Jasper drinks his punch and lays out his theory. ‘A brain constructs a model of reality. If that model isn’t too different from most people’s model, you’re labelled “Sane”. If the model is different, you’re labelled a genius, a misfit, a visionary or a nutcase. In extreme cases, you’re labelled a schizophrenic and locked up.’

On searching for a good quote from Jasper, I got pulled back into re-reading parts of the book. Before I knew it, half an hour had passed and I was deep into the story again. I really cannot stress how readable this book is! Even if you aren’t especially interested in the music scene of the 1960s, I am pretty sure you will get pulled into this story after reading a few pages.

The striking cover to the Dutch edition.

Utopia Avenue reads like the story of a band for the most part. It even features fictional cameos by some of the BIG names in music from the 1960s. I appreciate a lot of the music from this time period, so that probably added to my enjoyment of the story. In his depiction of the rise of the band, Mitchell writes convincingly about how a song is formed, how it comes together, how it might sound, without getting lost in descriptive details. The scenes featuring some of the band’s live performances were very exciting to read and made me miss the days of seeing live bands play in my hometown in the past.

One more thing I want to mention is the way a supernatural plot thread is carefully worked into the narrative. I don’t want to give too much away, but for anyone who has read Mitchell’s earlier books The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Bone Clocks, you will recognize a couple of characters from those stories. These characters feature in the supernatural side of the story, a fascinating exploration into the possible cause of a character’s neurological disorder. This is something I want to write more about, but I won’t because it could spoil your enjoyment of the story.

If you haven’t read any of Mitchell’s previous novels, this will in no way affect your enjoyment of Utopia Avenue. It can be read as a standalone story. But it may lead you to seek out these earlier books, which can only be a good thing because they are wonderful stories, in my opinion.

Utopia Avenue comes highly recommended. Thanks for reading!

24 thoughts on “Utopia Avenue (2020) by David Mitchell

  1. How big is the supernatural part? As much as I liked BC, I’m simply not very interested in a fictional band, so there has to be other meat on the bone too. (The funny thing is that BC would have worked for me without the supernatural too.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Cloud Atlas is actually on my tbr for this year. It’s been lying on my shelf for 3 years now – it’s high time I gave it a read – considering how pretty the cover is! 🤣 But your review of this one has opened my mind to what I can expect from Mitchell’s writing and honestly? I am a bit impatient to first read Cloud Atlas and then this one!!
    Loved the review, Wakizashi! And I am SO glad to have found your blog! 😇😍🦋

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The book synopsis doesn’t intrigue me all that much, but your review does. I don’t know that this’ll be the first of Mitchell’s books I’ll read, but it does increase my desire to give his work a try. I picked up a copy of Cloud Atlas late last year so I’ll likely try that one first. Thanks for the review.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Todd. Give Cloud Atlas a try and see if Mitchell’s style appeals to you 🙂 The different voices of each narrator really stood out for me. Also, the way Mitchell links each story together.


  4. For a second I thought this was going to be strictly a fictional adventure featuring a band and the whole process behind the composition and love of music. You definitely piqued my curiosity with the whole supernatural thread. It sounds like it was brilliantly weaved into the narrative. Great review, sir. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great review! I am so glad to read your positive opinion of this book. I read The Guardian’s criticism and it was really negative. I am particularly intrigued to read about the supernatural plot thread, sounds so good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I haven’t seen the Guardian review but I’ve heard the book has had some mixed reviews. If you are a fan of Mitchell’s other books, I’m sure you will enjoy this one, too. The supernatural plot thread has links to ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ and ‘The Bone Clocks’. I found it pretty fascinating and would’ve liked more. Thanks for reading and for your comment!😀

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh, I couldn’t put this one down! I was already a David Mitchell fan before “Utopia Avenue” was released….but now I’ve morphed into a total groupie. I feel that Mr. Mitchell somehow found a way into the depths of my mind and found the drawer labelled “Books I wish existed”, then made off with its contents and set about making the best ones into real books. That’s a special type of skill- to be able to write a story that the reader feels was written just for them.
    I too love the way David Mitchell weaves themes and characters from previous novels into the new ones he writes. I am completely in love with his literary universe and wish to live in it.
    I know it’s silly, but I’m already excited about the fact that David Mitchell will undoubtedly be working on another brilliant novel that I’ll get to read someday. His work is addictive!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s great to hear 😊 Do you have a favourite novel of his? I know it’s probably difficult to choose one, but I love The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Cloud Atlas is up there too! Thanks for your lovely comment 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      • Admittedly I haven’t read all of them yet ( and I’m glad of it, because it means I don’t have to feel lost whilst waiting for for Mr. Mitchell to release a new one 😉 ). The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is amongst those I’ve not read, but I already know somehow that it’s going to be one of my favourites. The title alone has magic in it 🙂

        Cloud Atlas was the first DM novel I read, and it affected me deeply. But then I read The Bone Clocks next, and then that became my new favourite! Slade House didn’t move me so much….but was still entertaining. I have to say that Utopia Avenue is my favourite so far. It’s put me under a spell that I don’t want to break!

        Liked by 1 person

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