Novel of the week


David Mitchell <em>Sceptre, 420pp, £10</em>

ISBN 0340739762

Eiji Miyake, just turning 20, visits Tokyo to track down his father. Never having met the man, nor having seen his mother lately - he was brought up by her relatives on the little island of Yakushima - all he has to go on is the name of the lawyer responsible for the maintenance payments.

He fantasises about using 007-style tactics to raid the lawyer's office and steal his father's file, but the doorman is rather big, so he writes a letter instead. He is warned off, not only by the lawyer, but also by his father's stroppy wife (his mum is a mere ex-mistress) and, worryingly, by yakuza gangsters in black Cadillacs.

While attempting to hold down a job at a railway lost-property office, Eiji keeps being threatened, abducted, double-crossed and beaten up. On one occasion, he is forced to go bowling in an alley that features the pleading heads of out-of-favour gangsters in place of the usual tenpins. On the plus side, he attracts the interest of a pretty waitress, who also happens to be a brilliant pianist with an upcoming audition for the Paris Conservatoire. The rules of corn, which David Mitchell treats with amused respect, dictate that such a character must have a life-threatening illness. This gifted beauty turns out to be diabetic and, despite the insulin jabs, she claims she could drop dead at any moment. Perhaps diabetes is more dangerous to the Japanese.

The novel's title contains a double allusion. "Number 9 Dream" is a John Lennon record from the mid-1970s, and thereby Mitchell is also paying homage to the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, whose multimillion-seller Norwegian Wood is likewise named after a Lennon song. Mitchell successfully adopts Murakami's catchy style: potboiler escapism with experimental tweaks and melancholy humour.

Some parts are more successful than others, however, and not all the digressions are worthwhile. Eiji's recollections of his dead twin sister are quite involving, but when he takes refuge in a writer's house and we are treated to the absent author's fable-like stories about a goat and chicken who live in a war zone, the effect is slightly tiresome.

And there seems to be no reason why we are given the journal of Eiji's great-uncle, a wartime kamikaze pilot - or, more accurately, one of the naval "kaiten", who were trained to pilot special torpedoes rather than planes (assuming Mitchell hasn't made it all up). The journal presents us with a minor puzzle: great-uncle Subaru recounts an air-raid alert at his training base, where everyone "waited anxiously for the sound of B52s".

What the B52 jet, last seen over Kosovo, is doing in the middle of the Second World War we can't be sure. It might be an innocent slip; or perhaps Eiji, through whose eyes we read the page, has misinterpreted the wartime term "B-san" ("Mr B"), meaning the B29. We are told that Eiji has trouble with the journal's obsolete expressions, and Mitchell is tricksy enough to go in for something like that.

Eiji is an engaging narrator. At one point, he is inveigled into making up a foursome with a playboy acquaintance and a couple of wannabe models. He wakes in a love hotel, minus his virginity but with a monster hangover. "That groin sneeze was sex? . . . Nobody even gives you a badge to sew on." He finds that the others have skipped and left him to pay the bill - which, on a lost-property clerk's wages, can't be done. And the place is probably owned by yakuza. This time, he really does have to come up with an action-hero plan.

Towards the end, John Lennon appears to Eiji in a dream and talks about the title song. "The ninth dream begins after every ending," Lennon says. We go on to discover that the book's final chapter, Nine, consists of a blank page, which is not as annoying as it might be. So Mitchell couldn't think of a proper ending; but much of the book is a riot, expertly staged.