Sextet for Overlapping Soloists – Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I read Cloud Atlas when it was first published, having loved Mitchell’s debut novel Ghostwritten.  I must confess that though I enjoyed Cloud Atlas on its first read, there were aspects of it that I struggled with. Most notably the middle story, written in post-apocalyptic pidgin, and the slightly dry opening chapter.  (I even momentarily thought my copy was duff; chapter one breaks off mid sentence.  I bought my copy in Thailand, and I thought there must have been a ghastly printing error!). Whilst I admired much of Cloud Atlas,  it confused me in equal measure.  I’ve been meaning to return ever since, but I rarely reread books.  The release of the film inspired me take another look.

Second time around, I was blown away.  Whilst not faultless, I think Cloud Atlas is a masterpiece of modern fiction.  The structure alone is enough to qualify it for greatness. I loved the interconnecting short story structure of Ghostwritten, but Cloud Atlas takes it one step further.  There are six stories, each nested within the previous one.

Every story has a wildly different voice and timeframe.  Chapter 1 is set in the 1800’s during the height of Empire and is the Journal of the rather priggish, but deeply honourable Adam Ewing. 2 is letters written by Robert Frobisher, musician, dilletente, cad and bounder.  3 is detective thriller fiction set in the 70s. 4 is roughly contemporary, following the blustering owner of a publishing house.  Chapters three and four are the most conventional and therefore accessible chapters.  The reader then needs to make a mental shift before tackling Chapters 5 & 6.  These are set in the future, with civilisation in decline.  5 opens in a futuristic fast food bar, the work force of which are clones.  Chapter six, is set after the fall of civilisation, and is narrated by a young member of a tribe of survivors.

All the stories, with the exception of the troublesome middle story are split in two.  So for example, Chapter 1 is excerpts from Adam Ewing’s journal, which Robert Frobisher in chapter 2 is reading, and frustrated about because it has been torn in two.  It is only as Frobisher’s own epistolary story is reaching a climax that he finds the other half, and finally we, the reader, get to read it too.  So, the story structure goes 12345654321, like a delightful literary matryoshka.

Each chapter contains many allusions and references to other chapters in the book, which is the sort of trickery I love.  These are certainly easier to spot second time around; it’s hard to spot an allusion if you have no idea about what it might be alluding too.  The themes too are many-fold.  Subjugation, Communication, corporate greed, and self awareness are all analysed, as is the nature of storytelling.  Such is stacking of the interleaved narrations, even the nature of reality is called into question, with the reader forced to wonder whether anything is real.

I could happily discuss the intracacies of the novel at length, but that would not make a book review.  The novel is undoubtedly clever but how should we determine whether its any good?.  It certainly isn’t very accessible.  Penetrating the middle chapter pidgin, will tax some readers patience and the futuristic fifth chapter will turn  away those prejudiced against sci-fi.  I think to get the most from Cloud Atlas it probably needs to be read more than once.

I’m tempted to suggest that a book that requires more than one read to fully appreciate cannot be a good book, but this would be over simplistic.  I had to read Great Expectations twice to fully appreciate its majesty; Cloud Atlas is the same.  In other areas of the Arts, I would not be so exacting. Great paintings demand multiple visits, and my favourite pieces of music took many listens before they found their way to my heart. Why should it be any different for Mitchell’s symphonic Cloud Atlas sextet. Why should books give up all their secrets on a first read?

All I can say is you must approach Cloud Atlas with an open mind. You will like some bits more than others.  Some parts will take great effort to get through, other parts you will devour greedily.  It should intrigue you, move you and ultimately, hopefully, it will blow you away.

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