For years Cloud Atlas, arguably the best known of David Mitchell’s award-winning novels, has been floating around on my periphery in a rather irritating way. A scratch that I’ve really not known whether to itch. Bouncing up and down my TBR list for years, the Marmite reviews from friends and fellow book bloggers left me feeling understandably apprehensive. Having read and enjoyed Number9dream for book club a couple of years ago (unlike some of my fellow members) I’d long-ago decided I would take the plunge at some point.
Using my shoddy skills to even attempt to describe the, admittedly utterly unique, plot of this novel to you all is a futile task. Enter my woeful little diagram:
- The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing – (mid 19th century) lawyer sails from the Chatham Islands back home. Rescuing a native stowaway who hides in his cabin, Ewing becomes gravely ill on the journey.
- Letters from Zedelghem – (1930s) a young musician forces his way into the home of a famous composer, begging work as his apprentice. Much naughtiness and deception ensues.
- Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery – (1970s) A budding young journalist investigates rumours of wrongdoing at a nuclear power plant, at her own extensive risk.
- The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish – (present day) fleeing the criminal family of one of his more interesting clients, publisher Cavendish inexplicably finds himself ‘imprisoned’ in a retirement home.
- An Orison of Sonmi~451 – (dystopian future) the confessions of Sonmi; a clone who has become self-aware. A terrifying glimpse of our imagined near future.
- Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After – (post-apocalypse) the narrative of Zachry, now an old man, remembering his youth on ‘Big Island’ (Hawaii). A life crushed by ignorance and poverty, plagued by violent tribes and in awe of the goddess; Somni.
What I did manage to glean after some painfully obvious clues is that the main characters of each section are supposed to be reincarnations of one another…much pondering therefore ensues on what this is exactly supposed to signify….
As much as it pains me to say it, I really struggled to get through this book and find that everyone I ask either feels exactly the same, or the violently opposite, way. How come?
This is an undoubtedly rich, complex, multi-faceted, clever and utterly unique tale; both in its content and the way it is structured. David Mitchell’s imagination is vast beyond belief and the concept striking despite its vagaries. Did I feel my mind open just a tad to his weird and wonderful adventure? I suppose so.
However, upon (finally) finishing the book I found myself asking whether any author should have to try this hard. The answer? No they shouldn’t. Mitchell’s prose is way over-complex, bordering on strained and even pompous-sounding at times. Check this out:
Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms round the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage.
All was not lost however; the dystopian ‘Sonmi’ section sang to my periodic desire for something a little frightening and apocalyptical. Fascinating, logical, political. I loved it.
That however, was pretty much my lot. Rather than keeping me intrigued, I simply found the elliptical structure to be hugely disruptive to any enjoyment, it taking me pages and pages to become even vaguely concerned with rather drab, unattractive characters before they disappeared from the story entirely. The link between them was not nearly forceful enough for me to give a damn and the climatic ‘middle’ chapter, written in an almost primitive, ‘back to basics’ language, was, by that point, far too tiresome to try and penetrate.
I’m not stupid, and this book makes me feel stupid. Boo to you David Mitchell …. Perhaps I’ll watch the film instead. It looks wonderful: