When I first began reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell I admit I had my doubts. I knew it was going to be different to what I was used to reading after checking out a few reviews, and with the intense first person narrative of the opening pages – epistolary style, no less – I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy the ride I was being promised. However, I persevered, and I’m glad I did.
Cloud Atlas is split into six short stories whose characters are connected – sometimes in obvious ways, sometimes you have to really look out for it. The settings for these stories range from the remote South Pacific in the nineteenth century to a distant, post-apocalyptic future – with much in-between.
The first half of each story is told first, stopping at a pivotal point in order to begin the next. The last story is read without a break and the others begin after in reverse order (see what I mean about the formatting?).
From the outset, Mitchell sets up his main themes, among which are racism, xenophobia, oppression, Darwin’s survival of the fittest, and that our actions, no matter how small, “from womb to tomb”, affect more than just ourselves, they affect those around us, which in turn affects those around them, and so on into infinity.
In the end, there truly is a sense of having read one epic journey, rather than six novellas.
The first part of The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing I found harder to engross myself into than the second (which I’ve mentioned), however, I instantly warmed to the Adam Ewing character because of the guileless way he perceives the world. He approaches it, not with a sense of knowing all of the answers to life’s questions, but with a genuine want to do what is “right”. We see this most when he takes Autua to the Captain, hoping he will accept the man as one of the crew, despite this being a risk to himself. In the end, his journey leads him to work with the Abolitionists to help end the slave trade and ends the book with one of my favourite closing lines: “& only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!” To which Ewing replies: “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”
I found Mitchell’s first story narrative engaging, albeit a little quiet (no big openings here), despite the diary-style – which if I’m honest I usually find a little flat, antiquated and lacking enough description to sufficiently “world build” for my tastes.
Letters from Zedelghem’s Robert Frobisher is one of those rare characters that manages to be both unlikeable yet endearing. There is something rebellious, brat-like, about him, which can be unsavory, yet it’s this rebelliousness and nonconformity that also instills admiration. He clearly feels great devotion towards Sixsmith, yet feels no sort of loyalty to Ayrs, the man who gave him a job when he needed it most – he sleeps with his wife and steals his things. It helps, however, that Arys is in no part a likable character in himself.
The language in Letters from Zedelghem is short and to the point and Mitchell often uses abbreviations and misses words out entirely, which serves to be a little jarring, yet only adds to the sense that Frobisher far is too impatient to sit and write for too long, instilling a further impression of his character, that he has a passion for life that borders maniacal. The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long; we get a sense of this when he commits suicide.
For me, the themes of the book as a whole are at their least obvious in Letters from Zedelghem. It isn’t clear why Frobisher has been disinherited by his parents, yet from his character we may assume it has something to do with his him being bisexual. If this is the case, we could see the theme of oppression and a tribalism leak through, as with the way Ayrs uses his talents and takes all the credit. For me, the greatest part of this story is the sense of a deep love between Sixsmith and Frobisher, despite the fact there is no interaction between them in real-terms at all. The link between Letters from Zedelghem and The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing is that Frobisher finds a half torn copy of Ewing’s journal.
The difference with part three, Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, is that Mitchell changes the narration style to third person and the tense to present, which to me adds to the feeling of the events occurring as the story unfolds. It also speeds up the pace a lot and raises the stakes for Luisa.
The characters in this part can be argued as being a tad stereotypical, specifically with the wicked Alberto Grimaldi, and writing less polished. I get a sense that Mitchell wants to keep the thriller pace and because of this loses some depth. Does that hurt the story? I don’t think so.
The link with Letters from Zedelghem is the character Sixsmith and his copies of the letters from Frobisher, which Luisa reads. The themes of the book are more obvious than the previous, with the “big bad” company pitted against the small-time news rag and with Seaboard ignoring hard scientific fact and the possible loss of countless lives in order to make a lot of money. This was my least favourite of the stories in Cloud Atlas, perhaps because of the change in tone. If Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery was an independent novel, or even a series, I in honesty wouldn’t even consider reading it.
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish returns to a first person/past tense account and for me presented was one the best characters in the entire book – Cavendish himself. There’s something a touch amoral and casually racist about him, but he also evokes a sense of sympathy with his predicament. We want him to succeed in freeing himself and evokes the nightmare we all fear in that in growing old we will lose our independence and control over our own lives. A think there’s also a comment here on the Western world’s attitudes to the elderly – in itself a form of xenophobia. This part is linked with Luisa Ray in that Cavendish reads Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery as a manuscript for possible publication.
Cloud Atlas is a masterpiece of writing, with themes and links between the stories going far too in-depth for me to do justice here.
Being a devout fan of science fiction, An Orison of Sonmi-451 was by far my favorite story in Cloud Atlas. The horror of the world Somni depicts in her narrative is what I see as a true dystopian future: corporations ruling all; fascism the undisputed norm; a race of humanity, Fabricants, grown to serve the higher “strata” until it is time for them to die, only for their bodies used to feed the next generation of Fabricants (not that I’m against recycling). The narrative style here moves a sort of question/answer session and is completely unique to anything I’ve read, yet it works and it works well. While we don’t get a true sense of Somni’s current predicament till the very end, she takes us through her world and allows us to see through her innocent eyes as she witnesses the horrors of her world and knowing them to be wrong.
The link between An Orison of Sonmi-451 and the final story in Cloud Atlas is that the main character Zachry’s people worship Somni as a god and live by her teachings. Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After, I admit, was the most difficult for me to engross myself in, simply because of the unusual narration style, yet it also may be the most accomplished in the whole book because of that very thing. Being first person and set in a post-apocalyptic world where language has changed – therefore the narrative reflects the vernacular and lexis of the people – meant it slowed the pace down simply by me trying to figure out what Zachary was saying a lot of the time. The fact Mitchell went to such lengths to instill such realism in his character is to his credit, yet perhaps it would have worked better as third person, keeping the unique language for dialogue. Despite this, the story successfully explores it’s prevalent themes: “the week are meat and the strong do eat”. This is explored in its most literal form: cannibalism.
Overall, Cloud Atlas is a masterpiece of writing, with themes and links between the stories going far too in-depth for me to do justice here. The writing is no less that flawless throughout, despite the reader (me, at least) having to “try” harder to with some parts than others. In the end, there truly is a sense of having read one epic journey, rather than six novellas.