Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
As anyone who saw the film last year will be aware, Cloud Atlas is actually six different stories – though still managing to be a single story in its own way. These stories take place over different points in human history, and also take different forms: the journal of a Pacific traveller in the 1800s; letters written by an aspiring composer in 1931; a 1970s journalist investigating a new nuclear power station, written as a thriller; a present-day publisher recollecting how he finds himself stuck in a care home; an interview with a cloned human servant at some point in the future; and more recollections from even further in the future, after modern civilisation has collapsed. The stories are not really stand-alones, however, but are linked with each other: the composer reads the Pacific journal, the receiver of his letters features in the journalist’s story, which is considered by the publisher, whose own story is turned into a movie viewed by the clone, who is worshipped as a goddess by the people of the distant future.
As you would expect, given that they’re being written in different time periods, and told by very different characters, the styles of the stories vary considerably. On the one hand, David Mitchell does a brilliant job of replicating the style of each period (and inventing his own for the two stories set in the future). On the other, the quality of the stories is not equal, and it doesn’t exactly start with its strongest. The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing is a bit dull, and the prose is quite a chore; the second story, Letters from Zedelghem, isn’t much better in that regard. It’s only when you get to Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, that things really pick up. My personal favourite was the fourth story, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, which is the most comic of the set.
The book has a curious structure: The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing is cut off halfway through, at which point Letters from Zedelghem begins – then that is cut off halfway through as well, and so on until the sixth story, Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin After. When this one is finished, the fifth story starts again, finishes, and we go on until we’re finally back with Adam Ewing. Again, this has pros and cons. It is a bit disorientating to keep leaving these characters behind only to return to them later, and sometimes it’s hard to recall all the finer details when you do return. However, the content is structured such that this is ultimately the best way to tell the story in terms of its themes: how human history is progressing based on society’s motivations – of which greed and power play a large part – and what this could eventually lead to. Where the human race ends up in the end does bear some similarities to the world that Ewing saw hundreds of years earlier, so it is ultimately appropriate that Ewing (and his reflections on the world we’re going to create) is where the book ends, allowing the reader’s journey to come full circle.
As an overall reading experience, Cloud Atlas suffers somewhat from its varying styles, but it’s a very unique book with interesting explorations of humanity’s path; it requires some patience to start off with, but is well worth a read. Rating: 3.5/5.