Cloud Atlas is one hell of a book. I have never read a book like this. It was exciting, confusing at times, and truly an epic. There were parts of the book that I couldn’t stand, but generally, I found the characters and their stories really interesting and was eager to keep reading. It’s not for everyone, but once I pushed through the duller parts, I really enjoyed it.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell consists of not one, but six stories that appear completely unrelated but are actually linked. The six stories take place in six different places, at six different times, and are told in six different formats. The first of these is called ‘The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.’ In this story, an American notary is far from home near New Zealand, waiting for his ship to be repaired and take him home. The Second, ‘Letters from Zedelghem’ follows the penniless musician Robert Frobisher as he becomes an amanuensis to the celebrated composer Vyvyan Ayrs. He writes letters to his lover Rufus Sixsmith about his time with Ayrs and steals expensive and rare books from his host, such as The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, which he finds fascinating. The third instalment is ‘The First Luisa Rey Mystery’ in which journalist Luisa Rey, after meeting the scientist Rufus Sixsmith (Robert Frobisher’s lover) in California, discovers that a new nuclear power plant is unsafe and tries to uncover its secrets. The fourth story is called ‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,’ in which a publisher Timothy Cavendish is booked against his will into a nursing home, along with a manuscript of The First Luisa Rey Mystery. The fifth story, ‘An Orison of Sonmi-451’ takes place in a dystopian Korea, and is about a clone who is who was used as a slave by her society before being rescued by a group of revolutionaries. With them, she watches a film retelling of Timothy Cavendish’s life. The final of the stories is called ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After’ and takes place in a post-apocalyptic society where Zachary meets Meronym, from a more civilised society, and learns from her that his goddess Sonmi was a real woman.
The first five stories all ended halfway through, interrupted by the next, until the sixth story, which was told until its end. After Zachary’s story, the first five stories are completed and we read their ending’s. What was most interesting about this structure was spotting the links. A character from one story would pop up in the next, such as Rufus Sixsmith, or a character from one story would be reading the story of a previous character, and characters in each story shared the same birthmark – a comet-shaped mark on their shoulder – suggesting some sort of reincarnation and links transcending the more superficial links of stumbling upon another’s diary. Although the stories did not influence their successors – which I would have liked to have seen – it was fascinating to see how characters years apart in different parts of the world could come across each others’ stories and be as interested in the life of another individual as we are as readers. I loved the story-within-a-story structure, and was amazed by it as I had never seen such a structure carried out to such an extent as six stories in this way. Furthermore, I liked that the stories were each interrupted at major turning points in the stories, which made me all the more eager to keep reading and see what happened to them.
Most of the stories in the book were exciting and great to read. In particular, I loved Letters from Zedelgem because Frobisher’s character and tone of voice in his letters was so interesting, as if you could really picture the kind of person that he was. I also enjoyed the character’s cheekiness and nonchalance regarding his affair with Ayrs’ wife and how indifferent he seemed to lying. Luisa Rey’s story was also exciting, as it really felt like the sort of story you would see in an action/thriller movie. An Orison of Sonmi-451 was also fascinating, and in particular I loved reading about the corporate nature of this dystopian society and seeing the resemblance of some parts of the culture to our world today.
However, I hated the chapter ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After’, mainly because I could not abide the way that it was written. I had enjoyed in previous chapters the changes in the language used by the characters – such as Sonmi’s more robotic language and new words which resembled a sort of ‘newspeak’, however Zachary’s story simply had too much of this ‘newspeak’. The whole thing was written in an incomprehensible dialect which took too much effort to read. I could barely make it through a short paragraph before wondering what was happening, and think it would have been a much better choice to make it easier to read and therefore allow the story to flow. After trudging through half of Zachary’s story and having almost no idea what happening because of this language, I simply gave up – completely fed up of having to rack my brains to understand as if I was reading a book written in language that I don’t speak. Instead, I took refuge in an online summary of the story and skipped the rest of it and went straight on to read about Sonmi’s fate.
Overall, I thought that Cloud Atlas was a fascinating and exciting read. I enjoyed the depth of the characters and their stories individually, and the intertwined nature of the stories made the book an even more magical experience. The only downside that I have is that in the middle of the book, I think David Mitchell took telling the story from the character’s point of view too seriously, to the extent that he was a short step away from writing it in a completely different language to the rest of the book.