Erases the boundaries of language, genre and time to offer a meditation on humanity's dangerous will to power, and where it may lead us.
It's hard not to become ensnared by words beginning with the letter B, when attempting to describe Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell's third novel. It's a big book, for start, bold in scope and execution--a bravura literary performance, possibly. (Let's steer clear of breathtaking for now.) Then, of course, Mitchell was among Granta's Best of Young British Novelists and his second novel number9dreamwas shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Characters with birthmarks in the shape of comets are a motif; as are boats. Oh and one of the six narratives strands of the book--where coincidentally Robert Frobisher, a young composer, dreams up "a sextet for overlapping soloists" entitled Cloud Atlas--is set in Belgium, not far from Bruges. (See what I mean?)
Structured rather akin to a Chinese puzzle or a set of Matrioshka dolls, there are dazzling shifts in genre and voice and the stories leak into each other with incidents and people being passed on like batons in a relay race. The 19th-century journals of an American notary in the Pacific that open the novel are subsequently unearthed 80 years later on by Frobisher in the library of the ageing, syphilitic maestro he's trying to fleece. Frobisher's waspish letters to his old Cambridge crony, Rufus Sexsmith, in turn surface when Rufus, (by the 1970s a leading nuclear scientist) is murdered. A novelistic account of the journalist Luisa Rey's investigation into Rufus' death finds its way to Timothy Cavendish, a London vanity publisher with an author who has an ingenious method of silencing a snide reviewer. And in a near-dystopian Blade Runner-esque future, a genetically engineered fast food waitress sees a movie based on Cavendish's unfortunate internment in a Hull retirement home. (Cavendish himself wonders how a director called Lars might wish to tackle his plight). All this is less tricky than it sounds, only the lone "Zachary" chapter, told in Pacific Islander dialect (all "dingos'n'ravens", "brekker" and "f'llowin'"s) is an exercise in style too far. Not all the threads quite connect but nonetheless Mitchell binds them into a quite spellbinding rumination on human nature, power, oppression, race, colonialism and consumerism. --Travis Elborough
tarshaan (Ireland) (2007/06/23): It's an interestingly structured book; essentially you have six separate stories, here, split across a book and interweaving. They're distinct, but not unrelated; references, themes, and characters leap from one to the other like salmon. Much of this book is pretty dark - a common theme seems to be free choice that turns out to be not so free, after all - innocence is doomed to learn wisdom - selfishness reigns in much of the worlds as described - there's betrayal and fear and lost worlds.
Yet there's also unexpected allies, and loyalty, and courage. There's an underlying lightness of spirit that shines, and a complex weaving of melody threading through the whole book.
And it might just be me, and how it resonates in my skull; but the final sentence - that's one of the most powerful expressions of hope I've come across.
I'd recommend this book. If you have difficulty working out what's going up after the first section ends so abruptly and you're catapulted straight into a seemingly unrelated story - stick with it. It really does tie in. And Cloud Atlas is definitely worth it.
darkwood (Australia) (2007/09/05): From the 19th Century to a post-apocalyptic future and back again, the main characters unfold in separate time compartments but are related in some way, by birth or sentiment. The corruption of power, the lack of concern for its repercussions on people and the environment. The good entwined with the bad. From the Pacific islands to Europe. Funny at times. The characters drawn clearly as individuals. One of those books where many times I didn't want to forget a turn of phrase, wanted to write some sentences and passages down.
I was overawed by the author's talent and by the characters and stories enfolding. I read it in a day and wanted more. I hope is other books are as good.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and winner of the Richard and Judy Best Read of the Year.
Ingrid (USA: MA) (2007/11/18): Six stories call to each other across time and space. It takes a little persistence to get into the first story, and each switch to a new story requires reorientation to the new voice and style, but this is really worth staying with. The writing is eloquent; some lines just hit you like a brick upside the head with their insight and beauty -- other haunt you subtly for a few pages and then suddenly twist your gut.
There is no one genre here - stories are told via journal entries, letters to a lover, an interview, first person, narrative...and they cross centuries. And in the end, they all tell us the same thing -- the parts are unequal, but the whole is greater than their sum. 4 stars for me.
Psybre (USA: IA) (2008/08/21): Others have explained this book well. Cloud Atlas is currently one of my top 5 favorite novels, along with "Native Son" and "Plexus" and "Death on the Installment Plan" and "Don Quixote" (if I really had to choose).
Marianne (Australia) (2012/08/27): Cloud Atlas is the third novel by British author David Mitchell. The stories of six lives from five different centuries are told in differing formats. The first story, The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing is written, as the title suggests, in journal format and appears to be the fragment of a journal that American notary, Adam Ewing wrote whilst travelling the Pacific in the 19th century, in particular, Adam’s experience at the Chatham Islands near New Zealand with a native stowaway and the voyage to Hawaii. Letters from Zedelghem are written in 1931 by the disinherited, gambling, bankrupt composer and petty thief, Robert Frobisher, to his friend, Rufus Sixsmith, a physicist at Cambridge, and describe his experience as the amanuensis to a dying master composer Vyvyan Ayrs in Belgium. Half Lives -The First Luisa Rey Mystery is a narrative set in California in 1975, Luisa Rey being a reporter seeking out the truth about a nuclear energy facility after an encounter with physicist Rufus Sixsmith. The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, a memoir set in the 21st century, details the accidental incarceration into a retirement home of the elderly but still quite capable Timothy Cavendish, and his attempts at escape therefrom. An Orison of Sonmi-451, a recorded interview with a clone named Sonmi-451, is set in Korea in the 22nd century when consumerism is the byword and clones do all the work. Sonmi-451 “ascension” to a higher state and the resulting events are described. And Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After appears to be set in Hawaii in the 23rd century, after a breakdown of society has occurred. Zachry narrates the events of the visit of a Prescient named Meronym to the Nine Folded Valleys and her stay amongst the Valleysmen. Whilst each of the lives is seemingly unconnected, there are common elements in each (dreams, places, people, birthmarks, ships, music) that form a tantalising if tenuous link between each tale. Each story is nested within the next one, and Robert Frobisher’s description of his Cloud Atlas Sextet applies equally to David Mitchell’s novel: “a “sextet for soloists’: piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe and violin, each in its own language of key, scale and colour. In the 1st set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the 2nd, each interruption is recontinued, in order.” This is an interesting device and joins the separate stories, each containing hints and clues, into a compelling whole that gives the overall picture. In David Mitchell’s version of the future, propaganda, blackmail, corporate greed and corruption are still rife; little about the interaction between civilisation and “savages” changes over 500 years. That said, there’s plenty of humour amongst the action and drama, as well as some beautiful prose: “The room bubbles with sentences spoken more than listened to”. It may be a long novel, but I would have relished more of Luisa Rey and Timothy Cavendish. A marvellous read.