Thursday, 10 January 2013

Book Review: Cloud Atlas

Title: Cloud Atlas
Author: David Mitchell
Year Published: 2004
Genre: General and literary fiction, Historical fiction, Science fiction, Comedy, Drama, Thriller

After reading Virgin with Butterflies, I really needed to read something that was not shite. Cloud Atlas, being recommended by a friend and coming with a movie and accolades and prize-contender-y-ness, seemed the perfect candidate. It was also the opposite of shite.

It's a book that's hard to categorise or describe in one sentence, so I won't even try. What I found most novel about this novel is its chiastic form: it's comprised of six sort-of nested stories in an ABCDEFEDCBA sort of structure. Bar the middle story, all the stories are split into halves. So, for example, the book begins and ends with each half of “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing”. I must say that I was very glad to see that the stories were completed as I would have been very dissatisfied if they were just cut off mid-way, never to be seen again, because I need closure in my life, yes I do.

The stories in Cloud Atlas cover a variety of genres and time periods. They are:
  • The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing”: an American faces the effects of colonisation in the Chatham Islands in the 19th century;
  • Letters from Zedelghem”: a destitute English musician finds work as an amanuensis to a blind composer in 1931;
  • Half-Lives – The First Luisa Rey Mystery”: a reporter in 1975 investigates suspicious goings-on at a new nuclear plant;
  • The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”: a present-day man becomes an unlikely prisoner;
  • An Orison of Sonmi~451”: in the future, a Korean “fabricant” ascends to human intelligence; and
  • Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After”: a post-apocalyptic story about a boy who deals with both a strange visitor and attacks on his village.

The writing is strong across all stories. David Mitchell uses very different styles across all six – for example, Adam Ewing is meant to be reminiscent of Herman Melville, Luisa Rey like an airport thriller. Now, given the stylistic acrobatics and fancy novel structure, I can almost picture the author being all like “La! See how impressive and clever I am!”. But the the thing is, I can't even be mad, because I am impressed and I do think he's very clever. The Luisa Rey story definitely works as a thriller and the Sonmi story is a solid sci-fi tale. I even found “Sloosha's Crossin'”, with its pidgin-like English, to be very readable. I enjoyed all the tales despite having to reach for the dictionary a lot in the first two stories (because wtf is an amanuensis?? answer: a secretary who takes dictation – you're welcome, similarly vocab-challenged people out there). The only story I wasn't too keen on was Timothy Cavendish's – but that, I suspect, is because what happens to him is realistic enough to terrify me. All in all, there is great variety in the stories and it was almost like a mix-bag of lollies in that monotony was never a problem.

The six individual stories are explicitly interlinked – the Luisa Rey story for example features as a fictional manuscript in the Timothy Cavendish story. While the tales are separated in time and space, we have recurring themes and a recurring soul (the one with the comet-shaped birthmark) who reincarnates into the different stories. Those who have seen the movie or its trailer might be misled – I had assumed, given the use of the same actors in different roles, that the book featured a group of souls who kept meeting up across time. However, only one soul is clearly reincarnated in the book, and even then, the personalities of the reincarnations and other characters are all different. Further, from watching the trailer, it also seems that more interconnections have been added in the movie. I just thought I'd mention this to dispel any false expectations if you decide to read/watch both versions.

Depending on how you interpret things, you can link the tales in different ways. I personally am not too sure whether I liked this; it felt kind of like the author was trying too actively to make it ~deep~ and ~ambiguous~. Together, the tales cover a broad scope of human experience and a commentary on humanity emerges from the collection; it's definitely a case where the sum is greater than its parts. But thematic links aside, the actual literal and character links between stories don't seem to add too much to the tales other than a “spot-the-connection” game for the reader, which can be fun or infuriating, depending on your tastes. I personally thought this the weakest aspect of the book, as the lack of “proper” connections made me wish for more. To me, the hints were tantalising but ultimately unsatisfying.

The tales are thoughtful and work well as individual pieces; together, they are something else entirely. The ambiguity of the connections between them and the multitude of themes (the nature of the human race, oppression, free will, etc) make it a good book for discussing with others. It's epic and glorious and a wee bit frustrating. Cloud Atlas is clever and well-written but don't strain yourself too hard looking for connections and just enjoy it for what it is.

Alex's Rating: 4/5


  1. Thanks for your speedy review on this book. Enjoyed reading it. Decided to get an iBook version to read because of all the 'big words' you mentioned. It should make getting the definitions faster with the built in dictionary haha.

    1. No probs :) Glad to hear you enjoyed the book! Man, that's a good idea. My high school dictionary didn't even have all the words :P