Best books ever written – Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
I’d put off reading Cloud Atlas. It’s been sat on my bookshelves for some time, so I guess the fact that the film was out gave me a gentle poke in the ribs. I’m a big fan of Black Swan Green, one of David Mitchell’s later novels, so why it took me so long to read his best known work, I’m not sure. By the way, this isn’t the David Mitchell off the telly, so try not to get confused.
About Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas is a book featuring six loosely interlocking stories, stretching long into the past and far into the future. It is a work of staggering depth and imagination. Its not a linear tale, and you are catapulted back and forward in time, in a way that initially feels jarring.
Its part thriller, part contemporary fiction, part science fiction, part historical travelogue. The main thread holding them all together is that the main characters in each sub-story, appear to be some form of re-incarnation of the earlier characters, all having the same birthmark. Cloud Atlas is the kind of book that keeps you wanting more. Above all, Mitchell is a master storyteller, and the stories he weaves are rich and cleverly intertwined.
Cloud Atlas – the structure
The first section “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” is the diary of a man travelling by ship on the South Pacific. He is portrayed a civilized man, witnessing the worst of human nature, but mostly unable to intervene.
We move on to”Letters from Zeldelghem” which follows Robert Frobisher a young musician of dubious moral character, as he finds work assisting a famous composer in Belgium. Frobisher tells his story via a series of letters to his friend Rufus Sixsmith, who we meet again in a later section of the book. Frobisher embarks on composing a piece of music he titles “The Cloud Atlas Sextet”.
The third element, “Half-Lives- The First Luisa Rey Mystery” is fast-paced, and written in the style of a 1970’s thriller. It follows a young female journalist on the pursuit of the truth behind the safety of a local nuclear power station.
The “Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” is written as farce, and brings to mind “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest”. Cavendish is a London publisher, who finds himself on the run, inadvertently ending up in an old folks home, from which he plots to escape.
The futuristic sci-fi element of the book “An Orison of Somni 451″ is disturbingly credible and full of satirical social comment, invoking Orwell and Huxley. Its a vision of a future dominated by large corporations and genetic manipulation. Written in an unusual retrospective Q&A style, its oddly very readable.
“Sloosha’s Crossin’…” is set even further into the future, when society has essentially collapsed, and mankind has reverted back to a more primitive way of living. This is perhaps the most difficult part of the book to engage with. The change in the language was so disorienting, that I actually thought about stopping reading at this point, but ultimately I found this part of the book the most rewarding.
The book does return to earlier stories, so we get some form of resolution to each. You get the sense that Mitchell, is “showing off” a little, by structuring each of the 6 stories in a different way, and showing that he is the master of each genre. However, if you are that good a writer, then why not show off a bit!
Themes in Cloud Atlas
Critics have referred to the “will to power” as the prevailing theme in Cloud Atlas, and its hard to argue with that. If you examine more closely, I would say that the human capacity for greed and cruelty are at the root of this. You could say that Mitchell is warning us about human’s capacity to destroy ourselves, but it’s not moralising in tone, more a resigned comment.
Each element of the novel could be an enjoyable and worthy novel in its own right. Its a terrific read, and by most accounts, superior to the film. So forget the DVD, and grab the paperback.
Its going for less than £4 on Amazon now, as is the Kindle version, so get in and grab a bargain!