* Prices may differ from that shown
I decided to read 'Cloud Atlas' having seen the trailer to the upcoming film adaptation. Split into six interlaced stories, spanning time, continent and culture, the book is gripping in narrative and fearless in the themes it explores.
The book begins with the diary of Adam Ewing, an American notary, ill on a voyage back to San Francisco. The diary is discovered by Robert Frobisher, an English musician who flees to Belgium to find work and documents this with letters to his friend Rufus Sixsmith. The letters are discovered by Luisa Rey, a reporter physicist Sixsmith trusts to expose an unsafe nuclear power plant. The story of Luisa Rey is sent to Timothy Cavendish, a publisher who mistakenly is sent to a care home, his memoir becomes a film and is watched by clone Somni~451, facing execution. The last story happens in a post apocalyptic world where Zachry worships a goddess named Somni and tells his story of meeting Meronym, a strange technologically advanced woman who enters their tribe.
Split just as each story reaches its climax, I was at times extremely annoyed, wanting to know just what happens next! The diverse characters and stories which unfold are so drastic, a lot of effort needs to be invested into each one- it is like starting six different books and not getting to finish them till later!
At first, the book was a slight chore as I failed to grasp what was so mindblowing about the book, until certain key themes and details started to reoccur. For example, Luisa has the same comet shaped birthmark as Robert Frobisher. These intrinsic links make the book so slick and carefully thought out, it is truly epic.
The book has a mirroring point, where the sixth story reaches a climax and then unfolds with the rest of the stories read/watched by the protagonist that preceded them. There is a WOW moment at the centre of the book as cloud atlas is being discussed and a wonderful poetic thought is uttered by Zachry, which sums the book up majestically.
Following this, the rest of the stories unravel with great pace, climax after climax. The shocking revelations of Somni and the explosive resolve to Luisa Rey is amongst my favourites.
The range of themes explored includes race, power, the human condition, love, sex, religion... which permeates throughout each of the six stories in different ways and at different scales. Mitchell says: "The title itself "Cloud Atlas," the cloud refers to the ever changing manifestations of the Atlas, which is the fixed human nature which is always thus and ever shall be. So the book's theme is predacity, the way individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations, tribes on tribes. So I just take this theme and in a sense reincarnate that theme in another context..."
Another interesting fact (via Wiki) is that the number six occurs many times within the book, a clever detail Mitchell injected, which I actually failed to observe, e.g. "Sonmi recites Six Catechisms, drives six-wheeler fords, lives on the university sixth-floor where she is left alone for six days, completes secondary school in six months"...
Overall, 'Cloud Atlas' is a unique book which spans time, language and culture- to tell six very different stories with one common message and theme. This is a book which is so huge and possesses such powerful writing that it takes time to digest and there are many literary gems to find, whether it is the subtle details, the beautiful descriptions or the shocking pacy narrative.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize of 2004, 'Cloud Atlas' is truly a must read.
It seems a good time to review this book, with a film poised to come out. It's been interesting reading people's reaction to the trailer for it in particular, which in many cases turns out to be - What on earth is it about?
It's never good to give away too many spoilers in a review. I'll do my best to avoid that. But I've also seen a lot of reviews of the book itself saying, What's it actually about? So, to help you appreciate it as fully as possible, I'll give away a key piece of information here.
It's about what we're doing to the planet. And do we have a future on it.
Ok, other than that big giveaway, how does it go about exploring this theme? You have six stories, starting with the oldest, set in the 19th century, working up to ones that are set in the present and the future, and they pivot on this theme. They also occur in different locations. There are tenuous links between those stories. They are not completed at once - the author then revisits each of the stories in reverse order and resolves them, and you end up back at the first story, where it all began.
Yes, it's a complex and daring structure, and the thing that I believe either confounds readers or puts them off finishing the book. I assure you, you really should finish it.
Some of the stories are more involving than others, and I do think they become more so if you stick with it and carry on, as the purpose of the book starts to coalesce. One story for me (I won't say which) was particularly heart-wrenching and horrifying. Yet its purpose is to plant a seed of hope amongst the black despair described therein. Very powerful, and the place where the heart of the whole endeavour really is.
I'm not going to say much more, I just wanted to give a glimpse of why you ought to try this book. But really, you should.
When Cloud Atlas was first published, I bought the hardback and it took me about 6 weeks to read it. I ploughed through it relentlessly, and was left completely bewildered as to what it was about, what it meant, and who the hell this David Mitchell character was. I found some parts of it fascinating and others as dull as ditchwater.
Six years on, I've managed to read it in nine very busy days, and I did find it much less impenetrable this time.
The novel is split into six sections. First Mitchell tells you the first half of six stories, then he tells you the second half of each story, in the opposite order so that you don't get the end of the very first story until the end of the book, and in the middle is one unbroken story.
I'll give short descriptions of each story, just because they do vary so much and I think it's important to know what you're getting into!
The first story, The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, is set in the 1800s, and tells of an American man travelling from Australia to North America by boat, via a tribal island where he inadvertently picks up a stowaway. He enlists the help of a doctor on board to treat his worrying symptoms, but his health continues to deteriorate.
Set between the two world wars, Letters from Zedelghem follows bohemian idler Robert Frobisher as he travels across Europe and attempts to get a job as an assistant for Vyvyan Ayrs, composer. In Ayrs' library, he finds the first half of Ewing's journal. Frobisher also composes a piece that he calls 'The Cloud Atlas Sextet', which is a piece for six different instruments, in which each instrument interrupts the last, and then...well, you can probably guess the rest.
In Half-Lives: the First Luisa Rey Mystery the eponymous Luisa Rey meets Rufus Sixsmith (the addressee of Frobisher's letters) who helps her uncover a safety scandal at a nearby nuclear power plant. No-one appreciates her poking around and soon she is risking her life for the story.
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish follows a debt-ridden book publisher who has got caught up in the wrong crowd. He flees London after a frightening night-time visit from some friends of an associate, and winds up incarcerated in a nursing home thanks to his brother's untimely death. All he has left of his previous life is half of the manuscript of Half-Lives, submitted to him by the author.
The next story is The Orison of Somni-451 and it tells the story of a cloned fast food restaurant worker, who seems to be a very basic form of human with little thought and no emotion or curiosity. However, this Somni is different. There are no links to the preceding stories that I've noticed, but Somni-451 herself is featured a god-like figure in the next one.
Finally, Sloosha's Crossing an' Ev'rythin' After is a dystopian, cynical view of the future, in which society seems to have returned to a tribal state, and the discoveries of science and technology are all but lost to most of mankind.
My main problem with this book is that I find the first story and the sixth story to be very, very hard going, to the point where I can barely bring myself to read more than ten pages at once. Having a think about why, I suppose it could well be because these two had language that was the most dissimilar from contemporary English. I like to be able to read very smoothly and because I kept coming across made up and even unfamiliar words on almost every line, I think I got a bit bored with it. The first chapter is written in quite a bold (considering the challenge it poses to readability) 19th century style whilst the last story is heavily apostrophised, and there are plenty of words that have been hijacked and used for different purposes. Even more words have been made up to suit their purpose. This does demonstrate a lot of skill and inventiveness on Mitchell's part, but it does mean you can't exactly skim these sections - you need to be heavily engaged in reading them, which is time consuming.
However, the stories that I enjoyed, I really enjoyed! The characters were really well done, and all the character voices were so different. I think when writing from multiple points of view, it's really important to have very clear distinctions between each character, and this was done with incredible skill. The stories are so varied and exciting that it's impossible not to get drawn in. And, of course, you always keep going because even if you don't care about the story you're reading now, there are others that still need tying up. The Luisa Rey story in particular was very much a thriller sort of plot, with a modern (for the 60s setting) woman who was really easy to identify with. The story that engaged me the most emotionally, though, was that of Somni-451, which is told in interview style. This really moved me, and whilst at first it seemed like a rather typical over done, under thought out, smug warning about the future type tale, it actually had much more depth and emotion than I first thought.
The themes of this book are varied but power seems to be a very central theme. Many of the characters (Somni-451, Luisa Rey, Sixsmith, Adam Ewing, Timothy Cavendish) are under the power of others, and they try to break free of that power with varying degrees of success. Only one major character is portrayed as having power over someone else is Robert Frobisher; he is also by far the least sympathetic main character. As is probably obvious from the plot summaries, Mitchell is also dealing with ideas about science and religion and society and human interaction.
The way each story echoes the one before it might be slightly overdone, but I still liked it as a concept. It's such a simple idea but such an ambitious one, and I doubt there are many authors that could do it justice. I know this book is going to reward frequent re-reads - I'm sure there are tons of subtle connections that I didn't make the first time round that I would enjoy finding again.
Each story is between 70 to 100 pages each, and it might be easy to dismiss Cloud Atlas as just a few short stories with a twist. However, the depth of the stories, the way they delicately intertwine and the unity of their themes makes this so much more than the sum of its parts. Recommended as a challenging but rewarding read.
'Cloud Atlas' is available new from Amazon for £4, although can be found cheaper from other sellers, especially second-hand. If you have a Kindle or other e-reader, it can be downloaded for £6.99. You may also be able to borrow it for free (yay!) from your local library. I bought my copy with Christmas vouchers a couple of years ago. The book was first published in 2004, and it was David Mitchell's third published novel.
On the back of my copy, AS Byatt is quoted as saying "David Mitchell entices his readers onto a rollercoaster, and at first they wonder if they want to get off. Then - at least in my case - they can't bear the journey to end." This seems to sum up my reaction to this novel very well too.
I found it quite hard to give this book the time it deserved: it had been on my "to-read" pile for absolutely ages and although I've started it before, I'd never kept going with it. But I got there in the end.
It's an interwoven tale where six narratives connect and split. It covers different time periods, from one set in the 19th century to the present to the distant future. It's told in halves, sometimes cut mid-flow, and then starting a new narrative. This is quite a jerk, and to begin with I found it annoying. Then I started wondering how each story would be concluded and whether it would have that satisfaction of resolution or whether we would be left hanging.
The author was playing with ideas about power and corruption, slavery and rebellion, and identity. Each of the characters share a birthmark, so whether they are the same person reincarnated or whether descendants, or whether marked by destiny, is a matter of speculation.
Mitchell also toys with notions of story-telling: who is narrating, who is the audience, whether the narratives are written as real-life accounts or entirely fictionalised. For example, the tattered journal of Adam Ewing is read by Frobisher, whose letters are read by Luisa Rey, who is a character in a political thriller and so on. An element of doubt about the reality of events is inserted by Frobisher's skepticism about the authenticity of language used in the journal, while the fact that Luisa Rey becomes a character in a novel read by another protagonist works similarly.
The s-f parts of the book were particularly interesting to me: one set in a technologically advanced dystopia, the other a post-apocalyptic landscape. The latter was somewhat reminiscent of a favourite novel of mine, Walter Miller's 'A Canticle For Leibowitz'.
Some of the narratives were stronger than others, I felt: perhaps the first part particularly seemed weaker, given how difficult I found it to get into the book initially. At times, the novel felt rather contrived and seemed to be trying too hard to be clever.
Over all, I really enjoyed this novel and I'm glad I finally read it!
Product details (as available from Amazon):
# Paperback: 544 pages
# Publisher: Sceptre (21 Feb 2005)
# Language English
# ISBN-10: 0340822783
# ISBN-13: 978-0340822784
# Product Dimensions: 19.2 x 12.8 x 3.8 cm
(A version of this review appears under this user-name at LibraryThing and elsewhere).
At the time of writing this is my favourite book. I was completely blown over by Cloud Atlas and I have subsequently read everything David Mitchell has written. In fact, if David Mitchell were to sneeze into a tissue I would demand to have a look and then probably write a review about it.
Cloud Atlas is written in an unusual structure which spans hundreds maybe thousands of years. Each chapter is like a short story and is (loosely) linked to the next. I did get the impression that Mitchell only linked the stories in order to make the novel a whole story instead of a series of short stories, but the book is so good that in the end I really didn't care!
All the chapters are written in dialect, some real, some imaginary which (once you get used to it) really enriches your experience of the story. Mitchell really captures characters in his writing, I realised this when I found myself identifying with a robot!
Parts of this book are so exciting that I couldn't read them fast enough and if you've never read it then I envy you for the experience you are about to have.
Cloud Atlas was first released in 2004, and I had been wanting to read it for quite a while before I finally got the chance to. I didn't actually know much about it however, so when I finally got to sit down and start reading it I was a bit surprised by the way it's written, Cloud Atlas is divided up into six different stories, each completely different from each other, but all having something that links the following story to the previous. There are five stories that are split into two parts, the first half of each is written and then there is the sixth story in its entirety in the middle, and then the other five follow on, giving their conclusion.
The stories come in this order: The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, Letters from Zedelghem, Half-Lives: the First Luisa Ray Mystery,The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,An Orsion of Sonmi~451,Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After, An Orison of Sonmi~451, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, Half-Lives: The First Luisa Ray Mystery, Letters from Zedelghem, The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.
The six stories not only follow on from each other in some unique way, they also move through time; the first story is set furthest back in the past, and time moves forward throughout each story, until you get to the middle one, where it's set in a post apocalyptic future. Each story is about something completely different and written in a vastly different writing style from each other, which reflects what is happening in each story, and the time it's set it.
The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing is set on tropical islands close to New Zealand around 1850. This story is written as a journal written by Adam telling about his stay here, what the people were like, the race issues of the islands and then goes on to talk about his journal sailing home.
Letters from Zedelghem is written as letters from Robert Frobisher which are always addressed to his friend 'Sixsmith'. He has gone to Belgium to help an old composer write his music and is staying in his large house while he works there. The letters are written around the 30s and he talks about how he's staying there just because he needs the money, how much he dislikes the family and how he wants to compose his own work, which he does, called the Cloud Atlas sextet. Whilst he's there he finds half a book called The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.
In Half-Lives: The First Luisa Ray Mystery, Luisa is a reporter folling in her fathers footsteps. She meets Rufus Sixsmith who, whilst they're stuck in a lift together, tells her about a nuclear power plant in the area he worked at and how it is set to pollute the whole area with unsafe practises. He is soon killed, but suspecting that he would be he sends her a report of his work at the plant. Luisa does her best to find the report and tell the truth about the plant. Rufus' daughter gives Luisa the letters that Robert Frobisher had written to his friend Rufus Sixsmith in the 30s. This story is set in the 70s.
Timothy Cavendish is a publisher living in the present day. Whilst one of the books he has published become famous he finds out that the author has brothers who want more money off him than they deserve, and as they have a bit of a reputation he goes to hide for a while. His brother says he'll help him out and gives him an address in Hull that he can go to. When Timothy gets there he finds out it's actually an old peoples home that he's signed himself into and can't get out. Whilst he's there he reads Half-Lives: The First Luisa Ray Mystery, which is the only manuscript he's taken with him.
An Orison of Sonmi~451 is set in the future in Korea, which is now called Nea So Copros. Sonmi~451 is a cloned human, one of many Sonmi's, who works as a server at Papa Song's, a chain restaurant who uses clones at workers until they have worked enough to be sent to a paradise in Hawaii. However, Sonmi~451 isn't like the other clones, she thinks too much and is able to develop a broad vocabulary. She is taken out a Papa Songs, which she would have thought would be impossible, it is the only world she knows. She's educated more about the world she lives in and wants to rebel against the society that makes and exploites her and clones like her. She is having her story recorded on an 'orison' for future reference. At some point she watched a 'Disney', a film, called The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.
Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After is set in the distant future in Hawaii. Zach'ry is a tribesman who is visited by Meronym, one of the last members of a society which still knows technology. The tribe he belongs to worship Sonmi as their God and Zach'ry discovers the orison of Sonmi~451 when he looks through Meronyms belongings.
There is a lot of variety in this book, each story is written in such a different style and is about such a different subject that at first it would seem that each story is too different, and the book is slightly disjointed. But on deeper reading, you can see the connections. It's surprising to find the links to each story as you read the next one, and whilst it never features deeply in the next story, it's a nice added extra to be able to link them all up. Also, each new protagonist has a comet shaped birth mark. Having the book split up like this is good in some ways, and not in others. Some stories I liked so much that I really didn't want to wait to read the end, and as each section is quite short it does get frustrating having to move on just as it getting good. But then when you have moved on, the next story seems even better, and it's easy to get just as into that one. It also breaks up the book which makes it fast paced throughout. The biggest problem, I think, is if you dislike one of the stories. The novel on a whole wouldn't be the same if you didn't read them all, but I know that if I was going to read a book and I didn't like the writing style, or the plot, I just wouldn't read it, but with this you really do have to. To be honest, I didn't Sloosha's Crossin' very much, the writing style was hard to get on with, but I didn't want to give up on it. And then when there is a story you love you do think you would like to read a whole book just of that, but of course you can't, there is more space taken up by other stories. There was only the one story I didn't really like though, and it's not like I hated it. I wouldn't have read it if it was just that book, but as it's short enough; it's easy enough to work through. And then of course another good thing about this book is that you find yourself reading stories with writing styles and plots you might not usually pick up, so it's good to try something a little different.
This is really one of the best books I've ever read, you feel yourself wanting more of each story and once you've read the first half, you can't wait for the second, until you start reading the next story and then find yourself wishing that that one would just carry on instead. I'd recommend this to anyone who's not read it; it's nothing short of fantastic.
I picked this book up from the library mainly because of the cover (shallow, I know!) and decided to take it home after reading that the book would be a tale of 6 inter-connected stories that span from the 19th century to the post apocalyptic future'. I feel my first warning should be that, whilst the book does indeed span the time it mentions, it's the smallest of threads that keeps these 6 stories connected.
The first story tells of Adam Ewing and his voyage from an island with Maori locals to his home town of California. He's ill, and there is a 'blackie' stow-away but apart from this, not a great deal else happens. The story stops mid sentence and we are on to a new chapter.
Robert Frobishner, an English society boy, has travelled to Belgium to work with a renowned composer, Ayrs. Arys is moody and irrational, with an unfaithful wife (as Robert Finds out). Robert happens to be reading a book but only has one half......can you guess which book it is? Yep, the one about Adam Ewing. Tenuous doesn't even begin to describe the connection! He's writing all of his experiences to his friend/lover (?) Rufus Sixsmith.
The further stories cover Luisa Rey who is a journalist uncovering a scandal at a nuclear power plant - Rufus Sixsmith happens to now be a nuclear physicist and Luisa gets hold of the letter that Robert wrote to Luisa - this is the next tenuous link.
Our next Chapter covers Timothy Cavendish, a publisher who has a manuscript from....Luisa Rey. Next is the turn of a future where people are created by a greed-fueled corporation where we meet Sonmi 451 whose story engaged me much more. The last story goes further into the future covering a time after a great devastation to earth. This was a difficult one to read due to the language being a form English that has been broken down and moved on (similar to Will Self's 'Book of Dave').
I won't go on too much but, safe to say, the 'inter-connected' stories are nothing of the sort, which is a shame really as, as separate stories, they have a certain appeal. All but the last two stories, about a genomed female and a time after 'the fall', were generally rather dull for me. The futuristic stories do provide some interesting thinking on are our current society and I found these much more interesting - I would have liked to know a lot more about these.
I persevered with this book as I was convinced that, at some point, there would be a light bulb moment where everything came together. It never happened and, as a result, left me rather disappointed
"Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell was nominated for the Booker Prize; received rave reviews and has been touted as one of the greatest reads of all time. As such I delayed reading it for many months. After all, I was bound to be disappointed. "Cloud Atlas" is a novel told in six parts. Telling the tale of six radically different, yet undoubtedly linked lives it is a disjointed mish mash of a book. Rather than a novel this book reads like a collection of short stories combined by a loose connection and this is its strength and ultimately its weakness.
Covering six lives in vastly different times and places is daring, unique and refreshing as it moves away from the writer's obsession with structure, chapters and linearity. Instead Mitchell offers the reader a variety of writing styles as each of the six sections are told from different perspectives be it an unwitting American Adam Ewing, hero to a stowaway Moriori. This native is one of the last of his tribe following the Maori's ceaseless slaughter. Or that of Somni-451 a fabricant/clone who works in a futuristic Mc Donald's ceaselessly with no rest. Other sections of note include an opportunistic musician intent on fame and fortune at any cost and a young journalist determined to live up to the reputation of her father despite the danger she finds herself in. Add to this an old bookseller who finds himself unwittingly in the unfamiliar surroundings of a Nursing Home and we have a wide array of characters.
As you can see the time differences between the sections are huge and Mitchell reflects this in his varying styles. Each story is told from the point of view of its protagonist and Mitchell gives himself the task of writing in the style of that time. As such Adam Ewing writes in the descriptive language of an intelligent man in the 17th Century whereas Somni-451 tells her tale in a monotone fashion indicitive of her life in slavery. Each narrative Mitchell achieves with varying degrees of success but on the whole all six sections left me in no doubt of his ability as he crosses genres effortlessly and provides convincing settings and interesting characters to peruse.
Mitchell's characters are a very strange bunch as I found it difficult to gain much empathy for them or their various plights. Their motives seemed largely selfish and Mitchell seems to be saying that motives are not an issue as long as the end result is worthwhile. The various settings however do invoke a variety of emotions with one tale leaving me angry while another filled me with a sense of justice and irony. I suppose this is the genius of such a diverse novel, there is bound to be at least one section you thoroughly enjoy and in my case I enjoyed the majority of them. My personal favourites were the Robinson Crusoe style "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" and the Bladerrunneresque "An Orison of Somni-451".
Of course, such a wide-ranging novel cannot be perfect and "Cloud Atlas" is not. Undeniably an epic in its scope and the descriptive, challenging way it is written parts of it most definitely drag whereas other parts seem to end far too abruptly. The language and way parts of the novel are written make this a heavy, thoughtful read at times certainly in a particular section that gets bogged down in musical terminology and history. As a result this novel is a worthy read but not all that accessible. You have to really want to read it, as its style can be off-putting although perseverance does reap considerable rewards.
At 544 pages this is a hefty read, you may find that as I did one section at a time is the way to go. Was I disappointed? No, but it was not what I expected. I am in awe of Mitchell's ability but he may have slightly overstretched himself here. The tales do mix together well by the novels conclusion but you will find yourself enjoying it more if you devote your time to one section at a time. I do recommend this novel purely for its attempts to be different and the sheer brilliance of the attempt but do not expect an easy read.
Paperback price: £4.55 on Amazon
I read a few members reviews a while back on Cloud Atlas and the book appealed to me so since then Ive been looking in my library for this particular book. I could have bought it from Amazon but money is tight and my bookshelves are overflowing so I only buy a book when its one I really want to own. I finally had to order the book in from the main library and at 529 pages even I couldnt read it in one sitting, in took me two days to read it and then a further day to make the connections that are so necessary to understand what Mitchell was trying to say with this many faceted opus.
I had never heard of the author before and to introduce him would take up a large part of my review so briefly: David Mitchell was born in Britain educated to degree standard and spent eight years in Japan before returning to Britain. His previous two novels were both nominated for awards and this book is short listed for the man booker prize.
There is no real plot to follow this is one of the most ingenious books I have ever read. Like the Russian dolls which open up to reveal smaller dolls so at first glance Cloud Atlas reveals its six main stories but in such a way that the reader either has to carry on to the end or give up altogether. I knew in part what to expect from reviews but nothing could prepare me from being catapulted from one part of an unfinished story straight into a new and incomplete next story. Eventually the individual stories do reach an ending but its the structure of the various endings that still seems to leave things hanging in midair.
The Pacific journal of Adam Ewing starts the book off with the tale of an American notary waiting on an island while his ship is being repaired. There are no dates to go by but the narrative of the story places it in the late 1800s. Through various conversations and deeds Ewing learns the fate of a once peaceful tribe called the Mioriori captured and made almost extinct by the Maori tribe. Ewing inadvertently saves the life of a native but puts himself in deadly peril this is where the narrative abruptly stops.
Letters from Zedelghem is part of a story about Robert Frobisher, a bisexual disinherited musician and composer who wheedles his way into the home and services of a famous elderly composer living in Bruges. This story is told in letters to a man called Sixsmith who is obviously a friend and one-time lover of Frobisher. He also manages to be seduced by his patrons wife while trying to please the great composer Ayres and working on his own composition the Cloud Atlas sextet, a composition for six different instruments. Once again the story ends in mid-flow leading into: -
Half-lives- the first Louisa Rey Mystery is a more modern story set in America with the character of Sixsmith now an elderly scientist briefly known to Luisa Rey a journalist for a small newspaper. Sixsmith has been working on a nuclear plant but knowing it has serious flaws he tries to scuttle the opening and in doing so sets up a thrilling story of espionage and murder, just as the story gets interesting it stops again.
The ghastly ordeal of Timothy Cavendish seems like a dash of humour in an otherwise deep book. The main character is an elderly vanity publisher fleeing some seriously heavy debt collectors and ending up incarcerated in a nursing home. The only link to other stories is a book manuscript of the Luisa Rey mystery.
An Orison of Somni-451 reads as a science fiction story with no obvious connections to any of the preceding stories. A tale of a clone in a futuristic world where humanity has brought about the beginning of its end. This highly disturbing story of a world where clones are kept in ignorance and do the menial tasks they are bred for has a meaning that ultimately links past present and future into one.
Slooshas Crossin an evrythinafter is in the far distant future where mankind lives in isolated pockets and only a few tribes have any basic civilisation left. Most of the action takes place on Big Island obviously somewhere on a Pacific Island. Their god is Somni, an icon of civilisation that once was real. A race of people from Prescient Isle visit occasionally and are rumoured to have the smarts a name for the last bit of a technical society where all else is lost. Preyed upon by a tribe called the Kona and the prescients having their own problems is there any hope left for last of mankind?
To find out the answer you will have to read it for yourself.
Mitchell is so good at this considering that hes juggling six very different stories with characters that start and end with little or no background. Although he gives precedent over the main characters there are cameo sketches that are almost too overblown to be true, yet somehow this only adds to the flavour of the story in progress.
Each has their own tale to tell and speaks with the language of the era in mind. Adam Ewing is a typical slightly naïve American in a world where white men looked down on black races as the scum of the earth and yet this naivety carries the hope of a better world.
Frobisher is a typical dandy a product of his generation and yet he has some redeeming features.
Sixsmith is man of conscience an idealist in some ways but one of the stronger characters. Louisa Rey is the typical journalist with an ex-cop for a father she puts her life on the line in order to get that perfect scoop.
Timothy Cavendish is a figure of fun a cross between P.C. Woodhouse with a dash of Oscar Wilde thrown in.
You wouldnt expect a clone to have any character but Mitchell manages this with a part of the story I just cant give away.
My favourite character has to be Zachary, the narrator of Slooshas Crossin. In a world where the remains of humanity are clinging to the last vestige of civilisation the character and the way in which he speaks gives that part of the total story innocence that carries the greatest impact.
This is an ambitious book, which defies classification. It would be easy to say that Mitchell took six separate stories to show how he could write with varying degrees of style but if this was the case then why bother to incorporate them in one book?
There is also the matter of each main character having a distinctive birthmark of a comet on their neck, what does this mean? Is Mitchell suggesting reincarnation or just a pattern of life repeating itself? There are clues to this in the book but the reader has to put in a little bit of detective work.
In each separate story there is an element of the predator a theme, which to me sums up the meaning of the book.
Man is the predator and as such will always feed on the weakest races. It seems far too much of a coincidence that the story starts with the death of a tribe and ends with mankind on a similar shore with only the pattern of mistakes made standing between them and annihilation.
Maybe my conclusions are wrong and Mitchell has just left us with an enigma but in doing so he has written a book that raises questions and to me that is the mark of a good storyteller.
I loved the book it kept me reading bleary-eyed to find out what would happen only to have to make my own judgements. In the end did any of the characters have an impact on the future and did they change it for better or worse?
Ill leave you with the closing words of Adam Ewing as he ruminates on the slave that saves him from the brink of death and makes him determined to pledge his cause for the abolition of slavery. He who would 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 amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!
Yet what is an ocean than a multitude of drops? (My own thought).
Whichever way you choose to read the book, as a slightly disjointed tale or a moral to be learned do read it. It may sound heavy going but to those like me that are a bit jaded with the same old storyline I promise you a rich and fruitful read.
As usual I have checked the prices and found that Amazon offers the best price at £4.79. You may find some bargains on e-bay but Id prefer to make sure that I could buy this in pristine condition. The hardback retails at £16.99 and costs £11.99 new in the hardback addition.
My title comes from part of the Frobisher story; with its emphasis on composing a sextet of a musical score it seemed somehow appropriate.
Thanks for reading
There was a time when short stories were in vogue. Those halcyon days of Poe, Lovecraft, Conan Doyle and the like were entertaining ones for a Victorian readership who could tolerate a tale told in short form. More recent attempts to re-invigorate this art form have come from Stephen King (with the awful Hearts in Atlantis by example) and the successful Clive Barker debut affair Books of Blood. I guess having read a number of reviews praising Cloud Atlas in the press as well as having the weighty vote of approval from This Mornings Richard & Judy then I felt curiosity bound to try it out. After all, this book was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2004.
David Mitchell is an author I hadnt tried before. Born in 1969 and hailing from the West Country, his first novel Ghostwritten published in 1999 promptly won the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for a writer under 35. Subsequently Number9dream was shortlisted for the Booker prize as well as the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Having previously lived in New Zealand, David Mitchell now lives in Ireland.
Cloud Atlas is a sextet of inter-linked stories. Starting with the 19th century adventure of The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, the short stories interweave to form a broad, rambling canvas spanning decades and continents with a recurring theme of inherent prejudice and ignominy.
The book opens with The Pacific Journal.. and is written in the first person about the voyage to the South Pacific islands of the American Notary, Adam Ewing. Ewing's diary entries build to tell a tale of discovery and hardship aboard the good ship Prophetess.
Letters from Zedelghem is the second story featuring the brilliant but flawed Robert Frobisher. Having been cut off from the family fortune and fleeing his native England to seek better times in Europe, Robert documents a series of letters to his former lover, Rufus Sixsmith. Set in the 1930s, Frobisher sets himself up as an aide to Vyvyan Ayrs, a brilliant composer who has become a decrepit recluse. What follows is a story of rotterdom and intrigue as Frobisher does anything he can to eke out an existence.
Half Lives The First Luisa Rey Mystery is set in the late 70s/early 80s and centres around the subterfuge surrounding a report about Swannekke B nuclear plant. Luisa Rey is a reporter striving to reveal the truth about the report produced by the eminent scientist Rufus Sixsmith whilst the shadowy figures of the Corporation are trying to silence her by any means.
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish heralds a change of pace as the publisher of the title finds himself holed up in an old folks home, kept there against his will. This one has more than a touch of One Flew Over The Cookoos Nest
An Orison of Somni~451 is set in the future as an archivist hears a fabricants confessions. Sentenced to die, the fabricant tells a tale of lies and deception highlighting the plight of synthetic servants who live to serve and dream synthetic dreams of retiring to a Nirvana that isnt quite what it seems.
Lastly, Slooshas Crossin an Evrythin After is the story of a Hill Billy and his encounter with an explorer from another world and their discoveries out in the Big Country.
For me, this is a book of stark contrasts. On the credit side, you have to take your hat off to the amazing variety of writing styles used to string this book together. The 19th century Pacific journal has that authentic austerity that takes the reader into a world of sea-splashed tea-clippers and hard-nosed jack tars whilst the style employed in
An Orison of Somni~451 is given a more futuristic feel by a revisionist approach to English with clipped words like xcact used to denote a language that has moved on with a focus on technology more than anything else (it is set in a Sony-centric Korea). Mitchell is clearly a very bright man indeed to have gone through so many different formats employed in just one book. Not only that but the first 5 stories have an initial part with the Slooshas Crossin tale being an all-in-one in the middle and the first 5 featuring again in subsequent finales to give the book, one big cyclical feel.
The stories themselves are gripping at times. I particularly enjoyed the humorous shenanigans of Timothy Cavendish whilst the interview dialogue of the Somni~451 story was a literary parable of oppression and slavery (a theme that recurs through more than one story). Even the initial saga of Adam Ewing had a twist in the tale that I didnt see coming. Of course, the links between the stories are clever and discreet, keeping the plot entwined whilst moving through the various paces of the different stories.
Mitchell's powers of characterisation are strong. Curiously, he doesnt particularly build a pen-picture of his characters with description but uses the story and dialogue to form an image in the reader's mind. It was easy to build an empathy with many of the figures used in the various stories and its the level of detail and authenticity of the language used that triggers the mental image of the principal protagonists.
There were aspects that I didnt like so much. I found certain aspects of most of the stories plodding and laborious. I guess I could see where Mitchell was going for the most part but he did labour the point at times as plot threads meandered to a climax. Both the Adam Ewing story and the Somni~451 had this about them even though they both got stronger as the story emerged. Probably the lowest point of the book was the centre-piece Slooshas Crossin an Evrythin After. To be brutally honest, I simply couldnt follow the story for the most part. Written in a kind of country sub-dialect, an example would be Us fgotten slaves was bein drained by hunger npain an the mozzies from the slopin pond now an we was envyin that Hawi boy diresome Whilst the reader can make sense of this example Im sure, I found it difficult to keep translating the type of language all the way through and found myself just desperate to finish this particular story and move on. Alternatively, it could have just been me being thick.
"Cloud Atlas" is a general interest read that doesnt appear to fall into any one particular genre. The closest would be adventure for those looking to pigeon-hole one of the most unusual books Ive read in a long time. Yes, I did enjoy it for the most part but Mitchell is not a writer I would put up there as one of my favourites. This is a challenging read and it took me a while to finally get through it. I can see why it would have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize as it is a cranial affair. I can also understand why so many people have bought and read it. All I can say is dont believe the hype.
Thanks for reading
Published by Hodder & Stoughton
I know you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but we all invariably do. And this one has a quite stomach-turningly hideous jacket: shades of brown, turquoise and maroon combine in what was hopefully the last project of some cover-art executive before they locked him up for crimes to the visual senses. Not only is it unfeasibly ugly, it's also cumbersomely large.
If these are the sorts of things that would put you off reading a book, then Cloud Atlas isn't for you. However, if you are bloodyminded enough to wrap it in newspaper, and only dip into it at home with some large contraption you have build in your shed with which to hold the damned thing, then the following review may be of some interest to you.
Cloud Atlas is a ridiculously ambitious book - which may account for the size of the thing. It spans several hundred years, takes in a large handful of central characters, uses a different style and structure for every section, and collapses back onto you just as you are starting to come to terms with the whole thing. That isn't to say it's not worth persevering with, though. If you have the patience to get into it, you can derive some enjoyment. It is undeniably well written, and clever in a fashion. Which is why it caught the attention of the literary radar of the Booker judges. Do also note that it failed to win, and perhaps for the very reason that ambitiousness is all very well, but it has to pay off. And I'm not entirely sure that Cloud Atlas manages to.
Shall we start from the beginning?
The book opens with the pacific journal of a Mr. Adam Ewing, documenting his homeward bound journey from the Australias. He is a rather uptight chap, given to disparaging accounts of the seamen, but good at heart for all his bluster. The device, however, is one that has come to the literary fore rather too recently to be used again as an opener in any book wanting to be seen as original. Anyone who has read The English Passengers by Matthew Kneale (and I do recommend it) will not be able to help comparing the two - the journal style, the attempt at representing the lilt of dialogues and accents that might be found aboard a colonial ship in sound and the patterns they make on the page - I very nearly gave up just a few pages in because I felt it was a poor imitation, but luckily it ends after just forty pages, and the whole thing becomes very much more readable. Ewing's account is left half way through - indeed half way through a sentence - with the reader aware that he is misguided in his friendship with Dr. Goose.
Next comes a delightful and completely unexpected account of Robert Frobisher - disinherited English rogue and would-be composer in Belgium between the wars. This tale is altogether more readable - and the character more likeable. We read a series of letters from Frobisher to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith. The letters are witty and sparkle with tales of the characters in the house he has established himself in. The link seems non-existent, until Frobisher gets engrossed in reading a copy of the journal we have just been privy to. The letters then end just as abruptly as Ewing's diary, and we are transported into the life of Luisa Rey. Who bumps into Dr. Sixsmith. And also has a predilection for Frobisher's music - although she has never heard of him.
The coincidences, it is clear, are meant to be part of the story. From Luisa Rey and her journalistic attempts to get the Swanekke Island power plant exposed, we travel to Timothy Cavendish in England, a publisher into whose hands a Luisa Rey story has fallen - just before he is locked up for being mental. Then on to a futuristic world where genetically modified slaves are bred to serve burgers. Sonmi, our narrator in this section, connects back to Cavendish by watching a film of his life. And Sonmi connects to the island of nuclear fall-out survivors that follow by being their God. Somehow. And once you start getting a grip on this part of the book, it all caves back in and you go backwards again through the characters to hear the second part of their stories - Zachary back to Sonmi, to Cavendish, Rey, Frobisher, with the book finishing where it began - with Ewing.
So we finish at the beginning, too.
All sounds terribly confusing, doesn't it? Well, actually, it's not too bad. Once you are in each section and you have worked out the bones of what is going on, the stories are quite enjoyable and imaginative. If you can forgive Ewing's unoriginality, you can probably also forgive the Atwood-esque-ness of the Sonmi interlude, and just get on with trying to work out what Mitchell is trying to tell us in his epic book.
And, the answer is I don't know. I'm not sure he was trying to impart anything to his reader. The book is just one big clever device that must have occurred to him one morning when sat infront of his laptop. Half forwards, all linked, half backwards, all linked. Then, of course, linked in lots of other ways too - Frobisher's sextet composition Cloud Atlas which is - wait for it - six instruments all going half forwards, and then half backwards, overlapping and conversing, Familiar? And then there's the very annoying main connector between all the characters - this silly birthmark they all have shaped like a comet, which is supposed to mean they are all in fact the same soul reincarnated. Bit hoopy-loopy of you ask me - never properly explained and just chucked in from time to time to 'explain' why, for example, Luisa recognises Frobisher's music the first time she hears it.
All in all. Yes, ambitious. Carried off? Not entirely - but not gapingly badly, either. Perfectly readable once you get into it. But not something that has made any great impression - there are no lasting lessons on humanity, philosophy, social order. And any fiction is bound to be poorer for that.
I am always pleased when a book is recommended to me by a friend. Often people think that, because I work in a library, I have mysteriously read every book in the world. Therefore, they expect me to tell them about titles and which authors to read. This time I am happy to indirectly claim all the praise and pass on Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, to you.
This is actually quite difficult to summarize, because Cloud Atlas is a series of six stories. These stories are separate but also linked ~ sounds weird, but it works because the individual tales overlap and interlink. The narrative takes us through the ages and around the world, spanning both the past and the distant future.
Through the years we see a lawyer crossing the Pacific Ocean in 1850, a young British composer in the 1930s who writes the Cloud Atlas sextet (for six overlapping voices) and a Californian journalist, in the 1970s at the time of Ronald Reagans tenure. We then move on to a publisher in the London of the 1980s, a genetically modified clone on death row somewhere in the future and a young man on a Pacific Island witnessing the end of civilization.
We end in the location we began in, thus ending the story and completing the link between the separate elements. I have probably explained this all very clumsily, but you really need to read it to get the full picture ~ and I dont want to give too much away. Essentially the book deals with the evil and good that exists in everyone.
~~~WHAT I THOUGHT.
We are led through these separate lives and narratives and witness the ups and downs of their lives through the eyes of each character. The book isnt constrained by time as we know it ~ they span the centuries and send us spinning from the past to the future. David Mitchell manages to be convincing whatever the gender, occupation or time his character is from.
He spans history and adeptly links the essentially different characters together, establishing common ground between them and showing how their lives are interlinked. There are also ripples in the fabric of time that carry us on ~ the story you are presently reading abruptly ends and we are thrown onto the next.
I started the book thinking that I wasnt going to get it! Not being a fan of short stories I couldnt see how the whole thing was going to pull together and entice me in. I was put off by what I was expecting the book to be like and was considering NOT reading it. I am so glad that I didnt let my preconceptions keep me away from a real gem of a novel. Mitchells strange tales enthralled me and got my interest from the outset ~ a rare feat in this type of book and something I wasnt expecting.
I found myself eager to find out what the next story was going to be about and itching for the next time I could get back to reading it. A friend of mine (the one who recommended it to me) was reading it at the same time and we found ourselves comparing notes and whittering on about Cloud Atlas ~ much to the dismay of others in the pub! We both didnt know what was going to happen and where the book would take us next.
It really got us talking and captured our attention ~ surely the sign of a good book? It has also been features as one of the Books in Richard & Judys Book Club and seems to have been pretty popular with most of the celebrity and public reviewers. The main reaction amongst the readers seems to be surprise at what the book was like and intrigue; making them keep reading, often despite themselves this is pretty much my reaction too!
The language used is often a little on, often archaic and sometimes a little on the rude side. It is, however, intriguing and in keeping with the people who the stories are about. The narrative style changes from tale to tale, but rather than feeling disjointed this adds to the uniqueness of the novel and is very clever indeed. With each story the style and language alters each represents each different era well. Mitchell uses his words effectively ~ they flow and jump about giving us rich, vivid descriptions that drew me in.
There is humour and darkness throughout ~ I found the story of the publisher (Timothy Cavendish) particularly funny. The image of Prostitute Barbie makes me smile even now! It is well crafted, well written and has eloquence and a unique style. Cloud Atlas is just that little bit different and begs to be read over to see the bits you missed the first time round. I have read Cloud Atlas twice already and plan to read it again. I have also recommended it to friends at work and to the library reading group via one of the librarians who runs it.
Be prepared to enter the lives of the many characters on offer and get a glimpse through their ages and eyes. It isnt an easy book to read, but it is a rewarding one if you see it through to the end. I wholeheartedly recommend Cloud Atlas to you too. If you are willing to take on a challenge and read something different, then you WILL like it. If you want something safe and easy then you may not enjoy it but PLEASE give it a go!
Paperback 544 pages (February 21, 2005)
Currently listed on Amazon for £4.79 ~ A saving of £3.20 on the paperback price of £7.99.
***If you want to read what other people think and find out a bit more about the author and his inspirations go to http://www.channel4.com/entertainment/tv/microsites
Browsing through amazon I chanced upon the novel ´Cloud Atlas´ by David Mitchell, a British author (born in Southport in 1969) hitherto unknown to me, the word ´bizarre´ in one of the critiques made me order it although the number of pages was not given as it usually is. Shock, horror!, when the book arrived, 529 pages in small print!
Without any introduction I find myself reading ´The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing´, an ´American Notary of Letters & Law´ written on his return trip to San Francisco from a South Pacific island where he was on business. The language is quaint (we´re in the first half of the 19th century), ´I hurried thitherwards´ . . . ´awakened me wide-eyed & affright´. . . I wouldn´t be surprised if some readers decided to put the book into the box for the next bazaar after reading the first pages, I was fascinated, though, to read what was PC in those days: ´It´s one thing to throw a blackie a bone, but quite another to take him on for life! Friendships between races . . . can never surpass the affection between a loyal gun-dog & his master.´ and what missionaries thought about the heathens they converted, but would I want to do so for more than 500 pages?
Big surprise, the journal stops on page 39 in mid-sentence and the second chapter with the title ´Letters from Zedelghem´ begins. Odd. Robert Frobisher, a young Englishman, the only son of a well-to-do family, yet disinherited for improper behaviour and a drop-out of a college in Cambridge where he read music, has fled from his debtors to Belgium. The year is 1931. His plan is to convince the composer Vyvyan Ayrs, now half-blind and unable to go on working, to take him as his amanuensis, help him with his work and get inspiration for his own compositions. He´s indeed accepted and a fertile cooperation ensues. He writes regularly to his friend Rufus Sixsmith in England, his style is short and terse.
Robert finds one half of ´The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing´ on the shelves of his room, recognises its values and, always short of money, sells it secretly. Aha, this is how the author connects the first and the second chapter, clever, even if they have nothing in common concerning the content.
The composer´s wife seduces Robert, tension starts building up, also on the composing front Robert has the impression that Ayrs steals his ideas and feels exploited where will that lead to? Just when the reader´s interest has been aroused the chapter ends. Odd again.
The third chapter with the title ´Half Lives - The First Luisa Rey Mystery´ takes us to the 1970s, Rufus Sixsmith, the addressee of Robert Frobisher´s letters has become a world-famous scientist of nuclear physics and has left Cambridge for a job in a nuclear power plant in the USA where he endangers his life by showing that he senses foul play. A friend advises him to leave the country asap, on the way to the airport he´s trapped in an elevator with the journalist Luisa Rey. I´m not going to bore you with details, let me just tell you that Luisa gets the letters Frobisher wrote 40 years ago and that she´s got the same birthmark shaped like a comet as Frobisher. Aha! Link!
Besides these two connections the Luisa Rey story has nothing to do with the two preceding ones, it´s a conventional thriller of the kind you buy in airports or at stations to pass the time with goodies and baddies, car chases, bombings, killers, you name it.
Why I´ve followed David Mitchell obediently so far although I can´t discern an overall theme is due to his brilliant style, lesser talented authors can also create different characters but can´t give them different voices, Mitchell uses different genres and his characters always sound genuine.
When the fourth chapter with the title ´The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish´ introduces the British publisher of the same name who was sent the manuscript of Luisa Rey´s story (link!) before he lands in a prison-like old people´s home with a sadistic head mistress, I follow him again without complaining knowing that I´ll be in for another gripping read. Why do authors write, why do readers read at all? Robert Frobisher has written in a letter, ´Composers are . . . scribblers of cave paintings. One writes music because winter is eternal and because if one didn´t, the wolves and blizzards would be at one´s throat all the sooner.´ Exchange ´composers´ and ´music´ for ´writers´ and ´literature´ and you have the answer.
Yet, in chapter five which has the title ´An Orison of Sonmi ~ 451´ my attitude changes and I see the author´s performance in a different light. Fast forward centuries, millennia?, the world is run by an anonymous corporation whose headquarters is located in Korea, the main protagonist is a genomed female (with a birthmark shaped like a comet, link!) fabricated to serve in a below-ground Mctype diner. A pureblood PhD student selects her as a test specimen for his thesis, she´s upgraded and given a soul. The whole chapter is dark, apocalyptic sci-fi, a genre which doesn´t appeal to me much, but that´s not the reason why I grow tired of Mitchell´s way of story-telling.
A character in the Luisa Rey chapter says, ´But it´s been done a hundred times before!´- as if there could be anything not done a hundred thousand times between Aristotle and Andrew Void-Webber! As if Art is the What, not the How!´ I have the distinct feeling that here the author reveals his programme. Right he is, of course, literary criticism has found out that there are no more than seven plots altogether, but if the How dominates the What, we have art for art´s sake. From one of the blurbs at the beginning of the book ´. . . (Mitchell) manages to be enormously clever while resisting the temptation to show off.´ Clever, yes, resisting the temptation, no!
The sixth chapter with the title ´Sloosha´s Crossin´ an Ev´rythin´ After´, structurally the climax of the book, I´ve only skimmed, location: an island somewhere in the South Pacific resembling the one of the first chapter, time: fast forward again, after the Fall. Which Fall? The main character´s new born baby has got ´no mouth, nay, no nose-holes neither, so it cudn´t breath an´was dyin´. We read about a primitive society in a primitive language. Of course, there´s also someone with a birthmark shaped like a comet (What does that mean/indicate/refer to? Nothing, I´m afraid).
If you think, that´s it, that I´ve retold the whole book, you´re very much mistaken because chapter seven is chapter five continued, chapter eight is chapter four continued and so on and so forth until on page 493 we read the end of Adam Ewing´s South Pacific Journal that broke off on page 39.
What is gained by this extraordinary way of story-telling? Nothing, if you ask me. The novel as such has no plot, no connecting theme (at least I can´t find one), the links are so weak they break It´s really a collection of six independent stories, each with a plot of its own, told well and with some profound insights, fascinating characters and enjoyable descriptions, had I been Mitchell´s publisher I´d have advised him to write a series of stories, one after the other, un-cleverly and without any artsy-fartsyness.
I feel like giving 3 ½ stars.
Cloud Atlas (2003)
amazon 4.79 GBP