Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell (2020)

Hope you’re all sitting down because I’m actually going to review a book that creeps into this decade!

So, a book club read – not one I would have chosen. You can imagine my dismay then when I saw the mountainous pile on the table. This is a vast book – something like over 500 pages, which isn’t Tolkien grade vastness admittedly, but to get through in a month is going to be a challenge for a lot of people. And also it’s by David Mitchell when, on a previous foray into one of his books – The Bone Clocks – I had to abandon as I just didn’t understand what the hell was going on.

Utopia Avenue, set in 1967, charts the rise of a fictional London band during the Summer of Love. The book documents the loves, lives, drugs, sex, friendships, family relations and deaths that touches each of the four band members and their manager. Levon – the Canadian manager – fair in everything he does, is responsible for bringing the band together; Dean the laddish, always-going-to-be-famous bassist whose misfortune opens the narrative; Jasper the virtuoso bassist who occupies a place on the spectrum somewhere between genius and idiot savant; Griff the northern sweary drummer who always tells it how it is; and finally Elf, the only girl in the band, semi-famous already, destined to be a great shining star.

This is a classic retelling of the rise of a million bands. Dean, down on his luck, is robbed, kicked out of his lodgings, loses his job and any hopes of finding stardom are shattered as he’s not able to pay for his much loved bass. However, a chance encounter, the break up of another band, a sweaty club and a promoter willing to take a chance puts three unlikely lads on the road to the big time. When Elf, who is going through a recent breakup not just in her personal life, but also in her professional life, is brought on board there is the inkling that they could be heading for success.

The first suggestion that Utopia Avenue (as they call themselves – they like the oxymoron) is on their way to stardom is when they bump into David Bowie who just happens to be drifting through London. They’re pally with The Rolling Stones; there’s an appearance on Top of The Pops (hosted by the creepy Jimmy Saville); and there are support slots to Cream. It’s all happening for them, but not fast enough in the cut throat musical world.

A fatal accident and a chance encounter with one of Britain’s great disruptive artists, Francis Bacon, sets the band on a different trajectory – they’re now famous enough to be reported about and familiar enough to be accepted into more hallowed circles. It is this trajectory that sees them hit the big time. But are they able to handle it, will their star be remembered into the 21st Century?

I was not looking forward to reading this as my previous encounter with Mitchell did not go well. It all started with The Bone Clocks. This is a story that begins in Gravesend, a town I know well. The first suggestion that I wasn’t going to enjoy the book is when he made an error in the location of the library. For reference, the library is not located at Library Mews. Maybe it was deliberate, I don’t know. However, when the two main characters started to fade in and out of existence I had to give up. I think this is what they did. Maybe they didn’t. But it was all above my head.

So, Gravesend still features in his writing. He refers to a fictional pub but there are lots of other things he gets more or less right. I’m fascinated that Mitchell has alighted on this particular town. I’m not sure he’s ever lived there, but geographically, it’s probably as good a location as any. It’s close enough to London to make it reasonable that people would go and visit but far enough that if you wanted to start a new life for yourself then people aren’t going to come looking for you. However, let’s not forget London is the real star of this little show.

The writing is fast paced and reflects the ever-changing musical landscape of the time. There isn’t the opportunity to take a breather because there’s always another band prepared to take any opportunities that are handed to them. This is a cut throat world and one that has seen better musicians crushed by the weight of stardom. There is a sense of belief about the characters and their lives. Societal’s disapproval of youth, long hair and live-in lovers permeates the pages. I liked each of the flawed characters and I thought them well-written and fully believable (perhaps because they’re so recognisable). I liked the way the characters mingled with the – now – most famous of names, showing their human side and their vulnerabilities. After all, they had to begin somewhere too. In other books I’ve read I’ve found this has been a clunky device and a real life character has lacked any substance, but in Utopia Avenue it lends authenticity. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Francis Bacon, who comes across as self-aware without being ridiculous. As a reader you’re rooting for the band who mix in these circles and yet somewhere, somehow, you know it’s not going to be.

It would be crass to say that the book is ‘predictable’. Any success story, whether real or imagined, will invariably follow the fairy tale story arc. Unlike the TikTok generation no star ever landed fully formed ever and so we get to experience the highs and lows of what it’s like to be in a band. And for the most part it’s fun and Mitchell takes us along on the hedonistic ride. However, we all know, that these highs can’t last forever and the come down is going to be epic. But we’re prepared for it because we know how it all pans out, but that doesn’t make it any less believable or readable. Maybe there’s a voyeuristic element? Will anyone become a member of the 27 Club (Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison, Cobain, Winehouse….)? Will they abandon their dreams and become suburban members of society? Will they end up on the circuit skirting the edges of fame?

Ultimately, there aren’t any real surprises in this novel. All the rocknroll tropes are here, however, the dynamic way in which the story is told pulls the reader along in its wake. The realistic and fast paced dialogue of the characters, the deft way in which Mitchell brings the locations alive and the inner turmoils that each of the characters experience combines to make this a very readable novel. So, I’m not saying I’m a converted Mitchell fan, but I’m not saying I wouldn’t give another of his books a go.


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

  1. HI Sarah, this is an interesting review and I enjoyed it. I would not read this book because the topic just does not interest me and I don’t listen to this type of music. I think that is why I don’t belong to a book club. I am to self serving to read other people’s book choices.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Robbie. Thanks for your kind comments. I agree that it’s not the era of music I enjoy (except for David Bowie who I adore) but ‘the summer of love’ as a device isn’t a bad one as so much was happening and we’re all marginally aware of it.
      Yes book clubs are a curious thing and I will admit that I go for altruistic reasons of getting to know people, especially as I’m new to where I live currently. However there are some real humdingers of novels out there (‘Hamnet’ was a recent one and I really wanted to enjoy it but sadly not to be) but it does get me out of my comfort zone occasionally.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I do understand the benefits of book clubs and expanding reading horizons. I read and review a lot of books on request within the blogging community so my spare book time goes to my favourite classics or war books. It is a nice way to meet people with a shared love of reading.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Ah yes if you’re having to review lots of books as part of your everyday then I’m sure you’re getting access to all sorts of things there!! There is definitely a nice community either online or in person who are happy to share their love of books!!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comments Martina, I do appreciate it.
      It was quite nice being reminded that the likes of David Bowie were just normal people before they became demi-gods 😉

      Liked by 2 people

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