Like a lot of people I suddenly became aware of Cloud Atlas and the author David Mitchell with the release of the Cloud Atlas movie. It was a struggle, but I did manage to sneak in reading the book before seeing the movie, and I am very glad that I did. Like all too many adaptations the movie is nothing to write home about, but the novel itself is absolutely superb on a number of fronts. Not only is it a spectacular and unique idea (which alone is enough to get a tick from me), but it is also a well executed story.
The plot of Cloud Atlas features six different characters living in different geographical areas, and living in different times throughout history. Each chapter is told from the point of view of one character, using a variety of literary styles and mediums. At first the chapters are ordered chronologically, but from the middle “double chapter” the chapters start going backwards through time. The first ‘story’ comes in the form of a diary written by Adam Ewing, a surprisingly eloquent American Lawyer journeying in the pacific in the 1860s. The second is from the early 20th century and told through some incredibly potent and suggestive letters written by a down-and-out musician named Robert Frobisher (letters written to his friend Rufus Sixsmith). The third is a ‘novel’ about a journalist named Luisa Rey who is investigating an unsafe nuclear reactor in the later 20th century. The fourth is a comic autobiographical film of Timothy Cavendish, a 65 year old publisher who has been tricked into a retirement village by his brother. The fifth is the confession of Sonmi-451, a genetically engineered worker/clone in a dystopian near future. And the sixth is set on what used to be Hawaii after some immense disaster and is told in the form of an old man named Zachary telling his story to a child.
The book begins and ends with the diary of Adam Ewing, along the way we transcend space, time and genre, and the plot evolves through a number of interrelated plot points and characters. But it is the connections between the characters that are especially genius. Frobisher has read the journal of Adam Ewing, Luisa Rey has run into Rufus Sixsmith and read some of Frobisher’s letters, Timothy Cavendish receives a manuscript for the novel about Luisa Rey, Somni-451 watches part of the movie about Timothy Cavendish, and Zachary has seen the recording of Somni’s confession (and previously worshiped her as a god). Many of the characters also share a similar birthmark (which is actually commented on in the Luisa Rey chapter), and the author has stated the characters are actually all reincarnations of the same soul (as signified by the birthmark). It wasn’t until about halfway through the book that I realized the pattern, and I am still astounded by it weeks after finishing the book.
But there are some downsides to this book. It is a hard book to get into, and some of the chapters are especially hard to follow. At the beginning I just could not get my head around Adam Ewing’s ‘stream of conscious’-esque diary. In fact I really had to persuade myself to keep going through the first chapter, and it was only when I reached the Frobisher letters that I was well and truly hooked. Similarly, Somni’s confession is a very strange literary experience and the dystopian world comes out of nowhere. I had to get quite a bit of the way into the Somni chapter before I understood what was going on, and even now I am still at a loss. But the middle ‘double chapter’ about Zachary were probably the hardest to read. The Zachary chapters are by far the slowest, and made the least amount of sense. Zachary’s ‘way of speaking’ makes it a challenge to read, and I feel like there is a lot of implied knowledge built into the story. Zachary’s chapter probably would have been ok in a full sized novel, but such a quick hit without much exposition just leaves the readers in the dark. In fact the whole novel could have been quite a lot longer, a serious negative of the approach taken by Mitchell is that just when you are getting ‘into’ a character or a setting, you are quickly whisked away to something else entirely.
All in all this book provided an incredible experience. When I first started this book, with a strange account of a man on a beach, I never thought I would read a story that wound its way through the pacific islands in the 19th century, the musical salons of the 1930s, an investigation into a corporate coverup, a hilarious account of a hapless old man, a dystopian corpocracy, or a battered old man in a post-apocalyptic society. Equally amazing was how each character had their own voice, and how well Mitchell carried out each style. The dairy of Adam Ewing is nothing like the letters of Frobisher, and the humour mixed with despair of Timothy Cavendish is something else entirely. As all the characters told their own stories using different mediums, Mitchell had a real challenge on his hands making them sound unique and real. But it was flawless. He not only captured the character, but he also captured the medium. I have often read books where I was counting the pages, not wanting the dream to end, but this was the first book where I did this with each individual chapter as well. Cloud Atlas is a brilliant book. Four stars.
Title: Cloud Atlas
Author: David Mitchell
Pages: 528 (Paperback)
Publisher: Random House
Josh’s Rating: 4/5
Amazon Link: Cloud Atlas