Review of 'The Cloud Atlas'

The Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

cloudatlas.jpg This book spans centuries with five inter-connected stories - both literally and thematically - of the triumph of humanity over adversity and intolerance.

We start with “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing”, a tale of the moralistically innocent Adam Ewing travelling the world in the 19th century who comes to see first-hand injustice at the hands of European merchants and slavery. “Letters from Zedleghem” tells of down-on-his-luck composer Robert Frobisher swallowing his pride in seeking employment as assistant to the famous reclusive English composer Vyvyan Ayrs now living in rural Belgium. In “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” a reporter uncovers a secret report regarding the failings of a soon to be opened nuclear power facility – a secret that the operators will stop at nothing to protect. For a slight bit of ironic comedy “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” tells of the rise of Timothy Cavendish's publishing empire brought down to earth by mounting debts and resulting in his being committed by his long-suffering brother into a remote mental health facility in Scotland. Far in the future of “An Orison of Sonmi-451”, Sonmi-451 is a fabricant serving in a Papa Song eatery whose life consists solely of serving consumers. By drugging her food a local university undergraduate causes Sonmi to question her existence and position in the tiny confines of the restaurant so escapes to explore the world around her - A world very far removed from anything she may have ever expected. Furthest in the future, “Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After” is set in a flooded world comprised a tribal societies and the story is told in an odd English-based dialect by the former Valleyman Zachry. The people of the Kane Valley are regularly visited by the technologically advanced “Prescient” seeking trade. One year a Prescient, Meronym, expresses a wish to live amongst the people who volunteer an unsuspecting Valleyman Zachry to be her host. What is it that she really wants and will they survive long enough for her to get it?

This book very much reminded me of the layers of an onion being the individual stories as we proceed in time from the outside in then back again. It is this ingenious structural conceit that allows the reader to see the connections between the stories that, on first glance, would seem completely unrelated but are more obvious when returning to the same stories in the second half of the book. These connections are sometimes obvious such as the odd birthmark on characters from each story though there is, perhaps, the less obvious theme of battling against injustice and adversity.

Mitchell is brilliant here at so completely telling the story from the perspective of their respective characters such that each story has it's own unique flavour. This is most obvious in the entirely different language used by Zachry in “Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After”. I initially found the far future English dialect very difficult to follow but with a bit of patience I learned to understand and appreciate it better.

The book is tremendously well written, indeed, often feels poetic. The intriguing and extremely unusual stories kept me enthralled throughout as I devoured the pages to find out what would happen (having to wait for quite a long time to find out what happens in “Half-Lives” was a bit of agony but worth it in the end). I have previously seen the film (review here) which I found intriguing and interesting but ultimately confusing despite several viewings. It is because of this that before starting to read the book I committed to taking my time reading so that I could more fully understand each story they fit into the whole.

There has been criticism about the “Cloud Atlas”'s complexity but I found that taking my time and concentrating on the stories rewarded itself immensely and would urge any reader to do the same.

It is in the final pages that the true nature of the book is laid bare and with it stated truths of the human condition that are themes that appear throughout “Cloud Atlas”. Poignant, touching and, at times, funny, “Cloud Atlas” truly must be considered a modern literary classic. Perhaps not the easiest read but it rewards the careful reader.

Rating: “I have absolutely no complaints”

Review Date: 2017-01-08

Genre: Science Fiction

Publisher: Sceptre

Publication Date: 2004

ISBN: 0340822783