Review: Cloud Atlas

26 09 2010

Right, trawling around Wilkinsons for a cutlery drainer  has made me realise that my life has just become a heady cocktail of excessive living. So for this afternoon only, I’ll take it down a notch and as promised, give you a review on my most recently read book: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (not that one).

Cloud Atlas is a tale of 6 characters, all of them in different parts of the world and periods of time, but they are all cosmically linked; Adam Ewing, is a 19th Century lawyer on a ocean voyage from Sydney to San Francisco, Robert Frobisher, a young composer in the 1930’s who, down on his luck decides to seek out one of his musical heros in Belgium in order to kick-start his own career, Luisa Rey, a 1970’s Californian journalist who is looking to uncover a massive conspiracy at the state nuclear plant after a scientist she meets in a chance encounter is later found dead.

The book also covers several other characters spanning the present day, a dystopian future city and a post apocalyptic island where the inhabitants are peaceful shepherds but they are surrounded by barbarians.

I was really surprised to read that the Sunday Telegraph disclosed it would not review ”Cloud Atlas” because its critic found the novel ”unreadable.” After reading through the milieu of protagonists that feature in the novel, it seems like it would be hard to read through, but I found it one of the easiest, most pleasureable reading experiences I’ve had for a long time. When a chapter closes on one character ready for a transition to the next, you are really disappointed that you are going to have to wait to find out what happens. I really felt that there was no way I would like the next character and their story as much as the previous but it really is a credit to the author that after the initial couple of pages I was hooked on the next story and quickly turning

the pages in anticipation.

Another brilliant facet of Cloud Atlas is the language; An easy trap to fall into would have been  to create multiple characters, come up with excellent original story-lines for each one, but then not have the depth as an author to assign a unique “voice” to all of them. Mitchell does this brilliantly and I never felt like I was hearing shades of another character coming through when they shouldn’t. All the characters really did have their own sense of individuality which is why the book was so wonderfully diverse.

Without getting too deep, I found that the philosophical messages in the story quite poignant  too and not too heavy handed. For instance, the protagonist living in Hawaii after the fall of civilisation is speaking to Meronym, a visitor to the island from a land where technology still exists. The two are speaking about human nature and the good and evil that we commit:

“List’n, savages an’ Civilized ain’t divvied by tribes or b’liefs or the mountain ranges nay, ev’ry human is both, yay. Old’uns’d got the smart (technology) o’gods but the savagery o’jackals an’ that’s what tripped the Fall (of civilisation)”.

As you can see, the language can look a little daunting at first but you get used to it. I thought it was a nice touch that Mitchell showed the evolution of language to give the effect of time passing as it really works. Zachry’s story and Adam Ewings, although furthest away chronologically, both come down to the same message which is quoted at the end of Ewings tale when he speaks about becoming an abolitionist after a black man saved his life:

“He who must do battle with the many headed Hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life accounted for no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!

Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

The title Cloud Atlas is a paradox as you cannot navigate using clouds due to their constantly changing nature. Mitchell does however, navigating time and space with consummate ease.

A really powerful, entertaining book which you can buy from Alibris for a steal with a 20% discount code if you click the link.

Hope you enjoy it!

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