David Mitchell is a writer who loves to hop around in time and space. Cloud Atlas, his best-known novel, begins in the 19th century in the Pacific, sweeps through 1930s Bruges, Seventies California, early 21st-century Britain, a future dystopian Korean state, a post-apocalyptic Hawaii, then back again. In later works, he has visited 18th-century Japan, the early Eighties England of his childhood and West Cork - where he now lives - in 2043.
His latest is set in the British music scene in the hippy heyday of 1967 and the comedown of 1968 (although he can't resist a final leap forward to the present day). It tells the story of Utopia Avenue, a psychedelic group that is somehow more than the sum of its unlikely parts: Jasper de Zoet, a faintly aristocratic, socially awkward virtuoso guitarist who suffers from "aural schizophrenia"; Elf Holloway, a "folk-scene doyenne" who now specialises in Hammond organ pyrotechnics; Peter 'Griff' Griffin, a gruff Yorkshireman who used to drum in a jazz band; and Dean Moss, a leering rock bassist from working-class Essex. They are brought together by Levon Frankland, a shrewd, sharp-suited Canadian manager with boundless patience.
Their name is conjured by de Zoet to sum up the band's "paradoxical" nature. "Utopia is unobtainable. Avenues are everywhere," he explains. It also encapsulates the nature of the Sixties as experienced here. On one level, there is the grand dream of peace, love and understanding; on the other, there's the cold reality of life: boring family meals, grotty service stations, sexism, infidelity, estrangement and untimely death. This may be the most mythologised decade of all time, but Mitchell does not look at it through rose-tinted John Lennon specs.
The band start out with a sparsely attended gig at a students' union and are attacked by mods in the car park afterwards. They will go on to have two hit albums and reach their zenith at a Californian music festival, but the journey there is less magical mystery tour, more mundane misery slog. The Summer of Love it may be, but the band's prevailing emotions are anxiety, jealousy and frustration.
We know this is the Sixties, though, because of the procession of luminaries who pop up like guest stars on a TV Christmas special: "Chuffin' Heck! It's Jimi Hendrix!" We also get cameos from Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, Francis Bacon, a pre-fame David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, Allen Ginsburg and, in a sour reminder of Mitchell's refusal to airbrush this decade, Jimmy Savile.
Chapters are named after Utopia Avenue song titles. If this were an album, it would be a lengthy and patchy compilation, more Beatles Anthology than Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Some 'tracks' are charming, some affecting, some strangely familiar (both in plot and character), some workaday. But if you don't like this one, don't worry, there'll be another in a few minutes. The author seems to enjoy pitching his characters from one challenging situation to another: being imprisoned unfairly; having a psychotic episode; getting blackmailed by a friend.
Some exchanges border the cartoonish, especially when the forces of anti-hippy reaction are embodied by a harrumphing brigadier, complete with medal and regimental tie. "We didn't smack the Nazis for six just for a mob of guitar-twanging oiks to turn Great Britain into a land of yeah-yeahs and ooh-babys," he intones. The dialogue can be hammy ("I detected a whiff of the Cockney barrow boy about you from the first," Dean's landlady tells him). At other points, Mitchell fires off the novelistic equivalent of a head-turning guitar fill: on the same landlady's wallpaper's "once floral pattern has sunk into a jungle gloom"; the Soho café where Dean works is "hot dank and dark as armpits"; a darkroom is "quiet as a locked church".
All told, this is a diverting if not entirely convincing detour on Mitchell's time-travelling odyssey.Sign up to our free entertainment newsletter
For more culture and entertainment news, reviews, interviews and features directly into your inbox sign up for our weekly newsletter HERE