Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

“Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms round the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage.” Timothy Cavendish

“Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul.” Zachry

cloud atlas

I thought this book would be difficult. I’m one of those weirdos who prefers to see the movie before I read the book, if I have that option. I found the movie choppy and jarring in the beginning. I was afraid the book was told in the same way, and there was no way I could keep track of all these characters. I was glad to find this was a series of novellas, cut in two, except for the last one which is told in its entirety. Despite the ease of reading,  reviewing it is still going to be a bitch. Please to read the blurb, and if you want other input, here is the link to Goodreads:

A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan’s California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified “dinery server” on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilization—the narrators of Cloud Atlas hear each other’s echoes down the corridor of history, and their destinies are changed in ways great and small.

In his captivating third novel, David Mitchell erases the boundaries of language, genre and time to offer a meditation on humanity’s dangerous will to power, and where it may lead us.

At first glance, the novellas don’t seem to have anything to do with each other, but they do. A main character in each one has a comet-shaped tattoo. Are we visiting the same soul through time, in some cases even running into friends of previous inhabitants and creating an instant bond? Or is this a mark that shows up on someone who will leave their mark on history? I leave it to you. Each character creates ripples that touch the lives of those in the future. I don’t want to give anything away, but I don’t think it hurts to say that our reluctant voyager’s diary is being read by the disinherited composer. The vanity publisher is sent a manuscript about the high-minded journalist. So you are reading this series of stories that seem to have no interconnection….and yet they do. It’s genius. And subtle.

Let’s talk about genre. We’ve got a historical adventure (the reluctant voyager), a poetic tragedy (the disinherited composer), a political thriller (the high-minded journalist), a comedy (the vanity publisher), a sci-fi (the dinery server), a dystopian-futuristic, maybe also sci-fi (the young pacific Islander.) What remains constant are the themes. Greed is a big one: individual greed for wealth, political greed for power and money, or societal greed – the taking of another group’s territory and resources. Heroism and bravery is another: sometimes the characters exhibit these things in very small ways – such as a group of elderly being illegally locked up in an old folk’s home defying the system to break free, or an individual risking personal reputation in the light of injustice and artistic integrity. There are also large, history-changing acts of exceptional bravery, such as standing up to slavery or government tyranny,  where characters risk their life, wealth, comfort, and personal safety, to do the right thing. These are large, overarching themes that are handled in story. It’s not a lot of preaching. The only time the prose lapses into sermon is in the Orison of Sonmi-451 (the dinery server), but even that is handled well. Sonmi-451 is telling her story for posterity to an archivist. (Herstory instead of history. Get it?) It’s probably my favorite, and yet the most frustrating. (This was completely botched in the movie. It made no sense so I wondered how the book would be.) I was really enjoying the novella, until I found a plot hole so huge as to destroy the very fabric of the story. Then that plot hole was handed back to me on a platter at the end and it made perfect sense. It was an incredible reading experience. As Sonmi-451 says “Truth is singular. Its ‘versions’ are mistruths.”

If I had to find a low spot, it would be the Luisa del Rey Mystery (the high-minded journalist). I am not one for political thrillers and though the writing is excellent, I would rather be reading a ghost story or a regency romance. I really didn’t care about that damn fictional power plant, even though I felt for the characters. I thought the villain in this piece was a cartoon character. It just didn’t hit my genre button.

I want to touch on other things I found interesting. Adam is the first main character, and Eva is the first love interest. There is a situation with two brothers where one lets the other get captured (or possibly killed) and he feels cursed for it – sort of a Cain and Able in a broad sense. Souls are mentioned repeatedly. I also noticed the recurring mention of sisters. There are actual nuns who nurse one character back to life, and Sonmi-451’s fellow servers are referred to as her ‘sisters’. One of the main characters slept with his sister-in-law and pays for it. Two main characters in separate novellas have actual flesh-and-blood sisters (one who loves them dearly and makes sacrifices for them, the other feels they are a thorn in his side, a symbolism of the separation from his family.) I think the sisters are representative of family and womanhood – without women, how do we regenerate? What connects us to the future, other than our offspring? Last: slavery. The timeline of the book begins with slavery: the white treatment of aborigines in the Chatham Islands of New Zealand, driving the Maori to encroach on and enslave the peaceful Moriori because it was convenient for the white settlers. We all know the white attitude “We are superior beings, and it is only right to take the ‘less-human’ natives as slaves, enforcing Christianity and curing them of barbarism.” In the end of the timeline, hundreds of years in the future, one of the remaining pockets of intelligent and peaceful people, knowledgeable of the machinery and science of the past, is under threat of destruction and slavery by a stronger, barbaric tribe. As noted in the reluctant voyager’s diary:

“- one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the Devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.”

For all the genre and history and symbolism and theme – I can recommend this on story alone. It’s beautifully written. Layered and intricate, and simple and poetic, all at the same time. I would read it for what the vanity publisher (Timothy Cavendish) says. “Books don’t offer real escape, but they can stop a mind from scratching itself raw.”


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