Golly gosh this book is impressive, both in terms of the themes which David Mitchell addresses, and his ability to write a story which starts in the 1800s and continues into a distant future, way beyond ours. This is a bit of a lengthy review, but the nature of Mitchell’s masterpiece makes this a necessary evil I’m afraid.
Before I get started, I just want to let you know that I haven’t seen the movie. It only came out in the UK a week ago, and I hear it’s pretty long so I’ll probably leave it until it comes out on DVD, due to my humungous
whale pregnant state.
So what is Cloud Atlas all about?
The novel is made up of six stories, with each one cleverly and subtly connecting to the others. There are so many intricate links between the stories that some of these probably went way over my head! Ah-well, I’ll blame that on baby brain!!
Mitchell’s structure is like boomerang’s path. It starts with the journal entries of Adam Ewing, documenting a Pacific crossing from New South Wales to Hawaii, a key place throughout the novel. I liked how Ewing’s personality evolved over time; by the end he certainly wasn’t the naive and slightly judgmental man that he was at the start.
I advise that you have a dictionary to hand when you read this section, due to some pretty archaic language – e.g. ‘recidivist’ and ‘peripatetic’. You may, however, have a way more advanced vocabulary than I do, if so, I applaud you, as long as you don’t actually use words like these in everyday life, in which case, you’re smug twit!
Ewing’s diary entries abruptly stop mid sentence and so the next story begins, told in the first person by way of letters sent from Robert Frobisher, to his “friend” Rufus Sixsmith. Frobisher is an opportunistic, arrogant and flamboyant English musician. I couldn’t help but like him, even though he’s a total cad.
Again, Frobisher’s tale is left unfinished and we move on to the First Luisa Rey Mystery, a story concerning a nuclear conspiracy. This section is more of an easy read than the previous two; it’s a fast paced page-turner, rather than a linguistic showpiece. Luisa happens upon Frobisher’s letters and is haunted by what she reads. Yet again, you’re left hanging as the story is left unfinished and we move on to the Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy (Timbo) Cavendish.
Timbo is a sixty-something publisher who finds himself in a seemingly impenetrable nightmare. Before this nightmare takes hold, Timbo is given the first half of a draft novel – low and behold, it’s the Luisa Rey mystery!
Timbo’s ordeal is my favourite sub-story: it’s witty, ridiculous and yet scarily possible all at the same time. There are some fantastic characters such as a Nurse Ratched type, and I also love the tone of the writing.
“Freedom! Is the fatuous jingle of our civilisation, but only those deprived of it have the barest inking re: what the stuff actually is.”
We leave Timbo, again mid predicament, and jump way ahead in time to The Orison of Somni 451. Told in an interview, this story is set in a dystopian/futuristic Korea, in a world that has succumbed to commercialisation. During this story, Somni briefly refers to old movie, and you won’t believe it, but it’s about dear old Timbo!
I found Somni’s section incredibly visual and thought provoking – it’s also a good fix for all of you sci-fi junkies (such as my good friend over at Geek Chic HQ). I think that David Mitchell uses this story to show us what could happen if we continue with our selfish and commercially obsessed ways.
The final story, which we reach in the middle of the book, is Sloosha’s Crossin’. This transports us even further into the future, after the fall of mankind, where people live a tribal existence and worship a god called…wait for it…Somni. I enjoyed this section the least. Mitchell tells it through Zachary, who speaks in an evolved English dialect which I found difficult to decipher in places. There are, however, clever links back to the previous stories and some profound questions are addressed.
“I watched clouds awobbly from the floor o’ that kayak. Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.”
Sloosha’s Crossin’ marks the farthest point of the boomerang’s path, before it heads back through the other stories, starting with Somni and ending with Ewing.
As you’ll see from the quotes I’ve included above, the themes that Mitchell considers are somewhat philosophical. Not only does he examine reincarnation and the path of a soul, his stories also highlight the predatory nature of man, exploitation and the (possibly inevitable) self-destruction of mankind, due to our commercial fixations. WOWZA, my brain is hurting just thinking about it all again!
So was there anything I didn’t like?
Not really. And there’s no denying that David Mitchell is a genius. I really enjoyed the challenge that this book sets the reader – i.e. spot the cleverly entwining themes and links.
Sorry do I always have a but? But, I don’t think that the stories within this book will stay with me. I wasn’t emotionally moved by any of them and I doubt I’ll find myself reflecting on the characters’ ordeals. This probably, however, was not Mitchell’s intention. He hasn’t written an epic love story, or a heroic account of overcoming harrowing suffering. He’s written a story that makes us think about the subjects he examines, rather than the characters who he uses as puppets to represent these.
“One fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself” – Will it? Or, can a tiny drop of morality in an ocean of sins actually make a difference? I’ll leave you with that thought, which will make sense when you come to the end of the book.
Have you read this book, if so what did you think? Have you seen the film? Any good?