So, yes. ‘Cloud Atlas’. It’s far from being a new book, but it was a new book to me, when I read it a couple of months ago. I was warned, repeatedly, that it was ‘impossible’, ‘unreadable’, ‘too complicated’, and so on, so I did come to it with a certain amount of trepidation.
Also, a little bit of cold, hard fear.
Now, in the warm afterglow of having met the challenge of reading it, I wonder why so many people warned me off. It’s a big, whopping book – but it’s nothing to be scared of.
‘Cloud Atlas’ is a huge novel, full of characters and voices and ideas and time periods, but it is all connected. It’s connected through the plot that David Mitchell weaves around his characters, of course, but also through the larger ideas of shared humanity, the desire to live, the need for freedom, and the gaining of wisdom. All these things make the book easy to empathise with and understand, and they also keep you turning the pages.
Structurally, the book takes the form of six novellas, five of which are split in two; one half of these split novellas is told at the beginning of the book, and the other half (in reverse order) at the end. The middle novella, ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ and Ev’rythin’ After’ is told in its entirety, like a ‘bridge’ across the middle of the book. The first story we come across is ‘The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,’ which tells the tale of a man on a nineteenth-century ship which is sailing around the Chatham Islands. The story takes in ideas of slavery, colonialism, brutal maritime history, and – overall – the ways in which people will use one another to get what they want. It is told in the form of a diary, and its dialect, language, and historical sensibilities are pitch-perfect in their accuracy. It reads like a long-lost primary historical document, and it’s engrossing.
The second novella is a total change. ‘The Journal of Adam Ewing’ comes to a sudden, and unexpected, stop, and the reader is flung into an entirely different world. We read about a young man named Robert Frobisher, who is extremely talented but utterly feckless, making his way to Switzerland to apprentice himself to the leading composer of his day because he simply cannot bear to do anything else. He is bisexual, louche, useless with money, and a total cad, but, somehow, we love him as much as the person to whom he is writing his letters – an old lover, Rufus Sixsmith – seems to do. We imagine Sixsmith’s pain as Frobisher details his conquests and his increasingly glamorous lifestyle, but – most interestingly – we read that he has found a manuscript among the papers of Vyvyan Ayrs (the composer with whom he is working) which is called ‘The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing’ – and it is torn in half. Finding the other half becomes an obsession. Ayrs also talks about a strange vision he has had of a futuristic society involving women who all look the same, and begins to write music based on his visions.
The next section is ‘The First Luisa Rey Mystery,’ written like a potboiler detective novel. A young woman in 1970s California discovers that a local power plant is not all it purports to be, and an eminent scientist – one Rufus Sixsmith – warns her of the danger before being murdered. In her investigation, Rey uncovers the letters from Frobisher which Sixsmith has kept, and becomes interested in his music. Her story ends abruptly – and frighteningly – and we do not know her fate as we move on to the next novella.
‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish’ is written in a highly comic tone, which is interesting as the story is quite frightening, in some ways. Cavendish is a publisher, who is always running short of money and who has now fallen foul of a criminal element. His brother tells him that he has booked him into a remote, and hence completely safe, hotel in order to get him away from his enemies, but this hotel turns out to be something rather different – a place he cannot escape from, no matter what he tries to do. He had to leave very quickly to escape the brutes who were after him, and – in his hurry – he forgot that he had a newly submitted manuscript in his briefcase, which he reads as he struggles to adjust to his new life in captivity. The title of the manuscript? ‘The First Luisa Rey Mystery.’
‘The Orison of Sonmi~451’ is the next novella, and it was by far my favourite. It tells the story of a ghastly futuristic society called Neo So Copros, but which seems very familiar to anyone who has ever been inside a large fast-food restaurant. The world is a totalitarian state, and the ‘people’ who work serving food and doing other menial tasks are ‘fabricants’, or clones grown for the purpose of being slaves. Their minds are manipulated by ‘pureblood’ humans in order to keep them down. The novella is written like an interview between one of these fabricants, Sonmi~451, and an archivist, and Sonmi gradually reveals her story. Led by one of her fellow fabricants, she stops taking the medication that keeps her mind enslaved and she becomes ‘ascended’, or conscious – a dangerous crime. She mentions, just before her novella breaks, that she loves a movie from the ‘old days’, which is called ‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.’
‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ and Ev’rythin’ After’ is set far, far into the future, in an unknown year. A post-apocalyptic society – or, after ‘the Fall of the Old ‘Uns’, as it is put by Zachry, the narrator of this novella – we work out that the people are living on the big island of Hawaii, and that they are largely peace-loving, but regularly come under attack from their warlike neighbours. They worship a goddess called Sonmi. One day they are visited by people who are far more technologically advanced, who wish to observe their people and their culture, and Zachry becomes suspicious. Meronym, the woman who stays behind to live with his people, has a strange holographic device from which the image of a beautiful woman emerges, telling her story – Meronym tells Zachry that this is a recording of the long-dead Sonmi, who was not a goddess after all…
This only brings us up to the novel’s halfway point, but I hope, if you haven’t already read the book, of course, that I’ve whetted your appetite for what happens next. The connections between the novellas, and the vastly different – but each of them perfectly realised – styles of writing used to bring them to life, were nothing short of stunning. ‘Cloud Atlas’ is a work of genius. It at once made me feel like a wholly inadequate writer and a very connected human being – and I loved it. If you’re anything like me, you’ll try to spot all the connections between the novellas, from names to birthmarks to things being mentioned and referenced to the mind-boggling idea that, despite the fact that this book has a huge cast of characters, perhaps some of them are simply the same people, being reborn and reborn throughout the centuries. Perhaps that’s all any of us are.
Happy Saturday, and happy reading.