What a story this was! There are many thoughts to compile for a book like this, so after giving them a few weeks to figure themselves out, I think we may have a coherent book report on our hands. No major plot details will be related here, so read on!
I’d never heard of David Mitchell before, though his previous books have found critical acclaim. I was hooked once I saw the movie trailer for Cloud Atlas, and knew this was going to be a book I would love.
This unconventional novel follows six main characters through different eras in the past, present and future. Beginning in 1850 with Adam Ewing who is sailing across the Pacific Ocean, we have a tone that seems very Melville. Through his diary entries we learn that Ewing is a good, Christian man who falls very ill on his journey home, during which he befriends a doctor and a former Moriori slave.
The next chapter introduces young Robert Frobisher in 1931. A musical prodigy, he leaves his lover, Sixsmith, in London to travel to Belgium to study under a famous composer. Pretentious, despite his struggles and disinheritance, Frobisher works to find recognition and success, as we see in his self-absorbed letters to Sixsmith.
The story really begins to pick up in the next chapter, Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, which follows Rey, a journalist in 1970’s California. Read like a novel within a novel (and a lot like Grisham), Rey believes she is on her way to uncovering a good scoop about a nearby nuclear power plant, which she is pointed to buy a now-aged Sixsmith. The plot has some great action, and Rey is easy to cheer for.
In what seems like present-day England, we next come across Timothy Cavendish, a not-so-successful publisher who has run into money troubles despite the recent, unforeseen success of one of his books. Although he is the eldest of the characters, his chapters easily bring the most comedy and lightheartedness to the book, though in a wonderful, round-about way.
Once we are introduced to Sonmi-451, a fabricant (clone) in the future Korea, the story seems to reach new depths. Her parts were especially thrilling in the movie adaptation, and probably provided me with the most food for thought in this whole book. Related to us in interview format, Sonmi-451’s story begins with her everyday life as what would be called a slave, working 18-hour days in a restaurant. She is given the chance to escape from that life and enters a world she could hardly have imagined.
Our final main character is Zachry, who lives on post-apocalyptic Hawaii. He is a boy in the story (portrayed as middle-aged in the movie), but retells the story from many decades later. His particular island is home to many different primitive tribes, including one that is dangerously savage. Biannually an advanced group called the Prescients come to trade, and this time they bring Meronym, who, with the agreement of the tribe, will stay to study their habits and way of life. Though he is distrustful of the newcomer, he is soon forced to face the memories that haunt him, with her at his side. This was another exciting chapter in the book. Mitchell employs heavy use of slang, which soon becomes easy to read, and the action and plot make it hard to put down.
Pretty intriguing so far, eh? I’m pleased to say that Mitchell also brings his A-game to writing. I was continually amazed that one writer/genius was able to so completely capture these wholly different characters and the eras they lived in. The way the story is told, the tone, language, even spelling all contribute. The story is intricate, meaningful, and exciting, sometimes making me laugh, sometimes compelling me to read quicker to find out what happens, sometimes even causing me to put the book down to ruminate certain phrases. On top of all this the structure of the novel was very new to me. Five of the characters’ chapters are split in two, breaking off at critical junctures only to pick up again; in one instance even mid-sentence. The six stories mirror each other, with Ewing’s chapters beginning and ending the book, and Zachry’s tale left intact in the middle.
The characters are all linked together in neat ways: Ewing’s diary is read by Frobisher, whose music is heard by Rey, whom is read about in a novel, by Cavendish, whose biographical movie is watched by Sonmi-451, who is worshipped as a God by Zachry’s tribe. The shooting-star birthmark these characters all share alludes to their reincarnation. Their shared struggle to succeed, to live, is the theme that links them all together.
Literally all of the main characters, except one, are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a birthmark…that’s just a symbol really of the universality of human nature. The title itself “Cloud Atlas,” the cloud refers to the ever changing manifestations of the Atlas, which is the fixed human nature which is always thus and ever shall be. So the book’s theme is predacity, the way individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations, tribes on tribes. So I just take this theme and in a sense reincarnate that theme in another context. David Mitchell on BBC Radio 4. 2007-06
Hopefully I haven’t lost you here. To further emphasize this point, all the characters seem to be fighting against some dominant force in order to be heard, or just to be. Slavery, in its various forms, is seen throughout the novel, as is the power of knowledge, which ultimately sets them free.
Though I clearly highly recommend this book, it is one that I can only suggest to certain readers. Some chapters are a bit more daunting in language than others and perhaps too introspective for the casual reader. Unfortunately the same is true of the movie. I couldn’t hold out, and watched the movie with my husband before reading the book. I was so lost. Great movie, but you really have to read the novel first. This is a book that will make you think, and with that said, I will leave you with this thought from a fellow reviewer, which ends with a line from the book:
“Cloud Atlas inspires a glimmer of hope for our future, for as insignificant as one person may be, as much as one fathoms his life to have no impact greater than that of a single drop in a limitless ocean, the question is posed: ‘Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?'”