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"Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies"
One of the books of the decade .
Mind blowing .
Would you read it again?
How does it compare to similar books?
How does it compare to other works by the same author?
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To paraphrase one of Mitchell's own characters, Cloud Atlas is a sextet of overlapping narratives. Six short stories linking the past, present and future of the human race: each one enveloping the next, like a set of Russian dolls. A bold enterprise indeed. Please don't be put off though, Cloud Atlas is the sort of book you don't so much read, as devour.
From the journal of Adam Ewing, on his voyage home to San Francisco across the South Pacific in 1850; to Zachary, a native of Hawaii, reminsicing about his encounter with one of the last survivors of the 'fall of civilisation' in some not-too-distant future; each story is told using a different narrative style.
Adam Ewing's journal, for example, which reminded me of Matthew Kneale's novel English Passengers, features some wonderfully rumbustious 19th century prose:
"An Indian farmhand peered through the window-pane at his master's visitors. No more tatterdemalion a renegado I ever beheld, but Mr Evans swore the quadroon, 'Barnabas', was 'the fleetest sheep-dog who ever ran upon two legs'."
But this storyline is left dangling as the second (Letters from Zedelghem) gets under way: transporting us to 1931, and the letters of Robert Frobisher; in which he bleats on like someone from a PG Wodehouse or Evelyn Waugh novel. A self-confessed idler, he is buggering off to Belgium...
"Uneventful journey to the Channel . . . cancerous suburbs, tedious farmland, soiled Sussex. Dover an utter fright staffed by Bolsheviks, versified cliffs as Romantic as my arse and a similar hue."
...in order to blag his way into the household of a famous British composer (loosely based on Delius). This is the weakest segment of the book; but hold onto your hats, because before long we are whisked off to California in 1975 for 'Half Lives - The First Luisa Rey Mystery' - a nuclear conspiracy thriller; a book within a book (within a book?) and a real page-turner.
Next we are brought bang up-to-date with 'The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish' - a pretentious, sixty-something, politically incorrect publisher who gets mugged by a "trio of teenettes, dressed like Prostitute Barbie" before having to flee the family of a gangster who wants to know where the proceeds of his lucrative memoirs have gone. This is a screamingly funny story: I did literally scream with laughter.
"As an experienced editor," Cavendish says at one point, "I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980s with M.A.s in postmodernism and chaos theory" - thus biting the hand that writes him.
And so it goes on. Just as you are enjoying one story, Mitchell breaks off and takes us hurtling into the future, like we've fallen into the Time Tunnel on that 1960's TV show. And in each story there is an echo of the one before.
When I got to the end of each story I wanted more, and when I got to the end of the book I knew I had to read it again soon. Yes, it is frustrating the way each narrative is interrupted by the next; and there is an irresistable temptation to skip forward to see what happens when that particular storyline resumes; and (quite needlessly as it turned out) I didn't look forward to the futuristic sections; but, with the exception of Frobisher's Letters from Zedelghem, I quickly became engrossed each time. It's a humdinger.
Yesterday I came across this quote from the French philosopher Michel Foucault:
"History is not a predictable mechanism, but a site of often random struggle in a cruel world of master-slave relationships!"
That could almost have been David Mitchell's blueprint for this book.
The fifth story (An Orison of Sonmi) presents a vision of a future ruled by 'corpocrats' where cloned workers called 'fabricants' serve 'purebloods' in some MacDonaldsized Brave New World which is threatened by 'Abolitionists' and 'Union terrorists'.
"How is it some men attain mastery over others while the vast majority live and die as minions, as livestock?" That's the question we are asked by one of our six narrators directly, and by all six of them in one way or another. Are slavery and exploitation inevitable parts of human society, or shall we overcome them? Quite profound stuff. Must the selfish will-to-power of greedy bullies always prevail over liberal collectivism? Nietzsche versus Christ in a punch-up - who will win in the end? Or will human history just carry on repeating itself? In the last story (Shoosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After) we are taken even further into the future to see...
...and then we go back. One by one, the storylines are resumed and resolved. But whereas in the first half of each story characters are repressed and enslaved, in the second halves we find out how their actions do make a difference.
At the 2005 British Book Awards, Cloud Atlas won the Richard & Judy Best Read of the Year award as well as the prize for literary fiction. An unlikely, but well-deserved, double.
Trust me, if you choose to wait for this book to be made into a disney, so you can watch it on your sony while drinking a cup of starbuck, you will be missing out. Don't just take my word for it, read what other reviewers have said about it:
"At once audacious, dazzling, pretentious and infuriating" - Publishers Weekly.
"Gloriously inventive and dazzlingly virtuosic" - The Independent.
"Like crawling across a wide narrative web after being stunned by a drug-tipped dart" - Toronto Star.
"The reader's task is to scramble up the steps of this six-storied ziggurat and bound down the other side [...] A glorious puzzle for the reader" - Lawrence Norfolk, The Independent.
"The way Mitchell inhabits the different voices of the novel is close to miraculous." - Robert Macfarlane, The Sunday Times.
"The propulsive zing of his sentences and the unexpected U-turn of his narrative give added fuel to his repeated suggestion that time moves like a concertina, not an arrow." - Pico Iyer, Time magazine.
"It knits together science fiction, political thriller and historical pastiche with musical virtuosity and linguistic exuberance: there won't be a bigger, bolder novel [this year]." - Justine Jordan, The Guardian.
"As if there could be anything not done a hundred thousand times between Aristophanes and Andrew Void-Webber! As if Art is the What, not the How!" - Timothy Cavendish, Cloud Atlas.
By the author of THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET, David Mitchell's bestselling and ... more
Booker Prize-shortlisted novel was one of Richard & Judy's 100 Books of the Decade and has now been made into a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent and Hugh Grant A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagans California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified dinery server on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilisation the narrators of CLOUD ATLAS hear each others echoes down the corridor of history, and their destinies are changed in ways great and small. In his extraordinary third novel, David Mitchell 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.