David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is simultaneously audacious, pretentious, dazzling and frustrating, weaving history, science, suspense, and pathos through six separate but loosely related narratives. Each of the stories is set in a different time and place, each is written in a different prose style, and each is broken off mid-action and brought to conclusion in the second half of the book.
The first tale is about a 19th-century American lawyer, Adam Ewing, crossing the Pacific in 1850, meeting Maoris and missionaries, a seedy English physician and some nasty sailors. The second is about a young British composer in 1931, who cons a dying genius into taking him on as his musical transcriber. This narrator, Robert Frobisher, composes the Cloud Atlas Sextet “for overlapping soloists” on piano, clarinet, cello, flute, oboe and violin, “each in its own language of key, scale and color”. Frobisher’s tale is told in a series of letters to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith, who later appears as a nuclear scientist in Reagan’s California in the 1970s. This Californian thriller is the tale of Luisa Rey, a journalist who finds herself in the midst of an ‘Erin Brockovich”-style industrial conspiracy and is at constant risk of assassination. The fourth voice is Timothy Cavendish, a 1980s publisher, imprisoned in an old people’s home. The fifth is the pre-execution testimony of Sonmi-451, a cloned slave in some future state, who has acquired intelligence and vision. The sixth, and central one, is about a young goatherd named Zachry who bears unknowing witness to the final fall of humanity into superstition, violence and war. Each story has a character with a birthmark like a comet, implying that they are different incarnations of the same soul or different forms of the same cloud of molecules (One character notes, “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”). They are linked by other artifices – Frobisher finds Adam Ewing’s Pacific diary; Luisa Rey acquires both Frobisher’s letters and a rare gramophone record of the Cloud Atlas Sextet; Cavendish is sent “The First Luisa Rey Mystery” by its author; Sonmi’s dying request is to watch an old half-viewed film of “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”, and Sonmi herself has become the goddess of the Valley Tribes of Zachry.
As you no doubt have already figured out, this book is hard to read and hard to review. I had heard so many amazing things about this book and I wanted so desperately to love it. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like it; I enjoyed the puzzles in the book and trying to figure out how all the stories were connected. It was also incredibly well written, with each story possessing a distinct voice. But sometimes I felt like Mitchell was too impressed with his own writing and too clever for his own good, making the book deliberately difficult. He wanted the novel to be more of an “Event” rather than a book. However, I still enjoyed the book and if you are willing to power through all 600+ pages, you might enjoy it too.