A book of six tales nested within each other.
Publication year: 2004
Page count: 529
I’ve seen the movie which of course influenced my reading. I also liked the movie quite a lot. But watching the movie first “spoiled” the book; I already knew the big idea behind the book so the book couldn’t wow me.
Cloud Atlas has six novellas each set in different time period and with different characters. They’re also written in different style. In each story, the central character of the story reads the previous story, except in the first one, obviously. It is a kaleidoscope of lives which are connected through the years in a tapestry of human life.
The first one is Adam Ewing’s dairy about his sea voyage around 1800s. It’s written in first person and emulates the style of writing at that time. Adam is a religious man and deeply dislikes the rowdy ship captain and his crew. He’s also a sick but managed to find a doctor to travel with him.
The second story is a number of letters written by a broke English composer Robert Frobisher in 1931 to his friend (and lover) Sixsmith. He manages to secure himself a place as the assistant to a former great composer Vyayan Ayrs who is a very sick man and very disagreeable, too. Robert is attracted to the composer’s younger wife in addition to the small amount of money Ayrs pays him.
The third is called Half-Lives the first Louisa Reye mystery. It’s written in multiple POVs and present tense, mimicking noir style. Louisa is a journalist in the 1970s US. She has integrity and wants to prove herself but she working in a less than reputable paper. However, she stumbles into a very big secret and doggedly pursues the truth.
The fourth is “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” and is written by an elderly vanity publisher. It’s most humorous piece in the book. Timothy stumbles upon a book which sells millions… and puts him into deep trouble.
The fifth is “An Orison of Sonmi – 451” and is set in the future where corporations rule the world, or at least the small part of the world we see. Sonmi is a replicant, a person designed and grown for the sole purpose of being a waiter. But one day she has a chance to see the world outside her diner.
The final story is set in apparently far future when civilization as we know it has collapsed. The first-person narrator uses somewhat different English than the modern day variant and it’s somewhat difficult to read. The narrator is a goat herder in an Iron Age village but sometimes the village is visited by people who have far more advanced technology.
Except for the last story, the others are interrupted in the middle by the next story and after the last story is done, the others continue, the first story’s final part last.
I really like this type of structure and I liked the links between the stories, too. The final story was quite difficult to read and by that time I was impatient to find out how the other stories end. My favorite was Sonmi’s terrible tale. However, the links weren’t enough for me to bring this to a coherent whole: they feel separate stories to me.
Cavendish’s tale has some amusing pokes at the literary establishment and reviewers, perhaps Mitchell is anticipating what some people will say about his work. He also puts down the British railways.
All the characters are flawed people and convincing as humans. They depict people at their worst, being cruel to each other, but in the end, hope glimmers in every human who ends up behaving humanely to each other, especially if their society frowns on it, or even forbids it.