Firstly, let me just say that Cloud Atlas is one of my favourite books of all time. It was the book that introduced me to the wonderful world of David Mitchell. It is a novel, particularly at the time of publication, unlike any other. In truth it is six novellas that are all connected in a multitude of differing ways.
The structure, again, was quite unique upon first reading. The six different storylines are broken up into halves. So that there are twelve chapters, or sections. The first will stop abruptly and then will not continue until the very last chapter. The second will pause and not continue until the second-last chapter. It sounds quite bizarre, but it works brilliantly. You may find yourself forgetting characters and plot points with this unique structure, but the story is so engaging, so rewarding, that it is no chore to go back and reference the first half, or indeed read it again. And Mitchell usually exits the first half in the fashion of a good old cliff hanger, creating a desire in the reader to read the second half. He even ends the first half of the first story mid-sentence.
A major factor in the enjoyment is to reread sections, discover the connections that are everywhere. Some easily found. Most are objects of interest in one story, discovered by the protagonist in another. But others are furtively hiding, waiting for discovery.
Each section is not only its own storyline but its own genre as well.
The first storyline is structured in the format of a Journal. The journal belongs to an American, Adam Ewing. Ewing is returning to his homeland, America, but he is currently marooned on the Chatham Islands, an archipelago about 800 miles east of New Zealand, waiting for the ship he is travelling on to be repaired and victualled. In his first entry he finds a Dr Henry Goose who is collecting human teeth left over from an ancient cannibal’s feast, which he is planning on selling. The teeth are made into sets of dentures, but he is not doing it for money, rather revenge and redemption on a certain Marchioness who, five years ago, destroyed his reputation, shunning him from society. Ewing thinks the doctor a little mad.
The doctor is waiting for a ship to return to London, however when Ewing’s ship is ready and sets sail Dr Goose decides to travel with Ewing and the seeds of a friendship start to sprout. But is the good doctor really his friend? Perhaps Ewing’s first impression was true.
This first story is historical fiction, and we learn of the peaceful indigenous Moriori, who were all but wiped off the face of their island in an act of genocide by the belligerent Mauri.
The second storyline switches structure again and takes an epistolary form. The protagonist, Robert Frobisher, a music student, is insolvent and has a myriad of collectors after him. He starts the story escaping from a group of them, climbing out his hotel window and shimmying down a pipe. Of course, he has not paid his bill. He also has a rather inflated ego, and is bitter at his state of penury,
“What value are education, breeding and talent if one doesn’t have a pot to piss in?”
His plan to solve his problem and escape his penurious state is to become an amanuensis for a famous composer, Vyvyan Ayrs. Due to illness Ayrs’ eyesight is failing, and he has not written anything new, barely able to hold a pen. Frobisher, upon meeting him for the first time finds a frail old man in a wheelchair and smells blood in the water and turns on the charm. He convinces Ayrs that he needs an amanuensis and to start writing again. It is Frobisher who composes the Cloud Atlas Sextet, the music that flows through the storylines. The beauty of the sextet is that it is written in the same structure as the novel.
The third story introduces us to Luisa Rey, and Sixsmith, the recipient of the letters that Frobisher is writing to in the previous story. Luisa Ray, who is writing 300-word fluff columns for a magazine called Spyglass, would very much like to follow in the footsteps of her father who was a famous foreign correspondent who covered the Vietnam War. When she gets stuck in an elevator with Sixsmith, she may just get her chance. Rufus Sixsmith is a scientist overseeing a new nuclear power plant. He knows that it is not safe and wants to go public with his findings. But before he can tell his story to Luisa, he is found dead at his hotel, a suspected suicide. Luisa smells foul play and a prize story. But now she is in danger herself.
The fourth story is darkly comical and takes a new structure again. The protagonist is a publisher, Timothy Cavendish. He is writing his memoir in longhand, and what a memoir it is. When he titles it “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”, you know it’s going to be interesting. Cavendish’s troubles start when one of his author’s decides to throw a critic, known for his scathing reviews, to his death, from a twelve-story rooftop garden award ceremony. This murder results in the author becoming instantly infamous, and sales of his latest book, a memoir which had not even been on a shelf yet, skyrocketing. Cavendish’s problems begin when the author’s brothers come looking for the money the book has made. His brothers are little more than crooked thugs and Cavendish’s life is in mortal danger. The problem is there is no money to pay them. The money was used to pay off long standing debts.
The fifth story changes genre and structure again. Science Fiction the genre, and an interview the structure. The reader is propelled into a dystopic future where consumerism is God. Brands and products prayed to like deities. In this future, clones are grown to serve. The protagonist here, Sonmi-451 is a clone produced to serve at a fast-food restaurant. Her whole existence is serving and sleep. Twelve years they spend serving in the restaurant without ever leaving its walls. After their twelve years finish, they are promised they can retire to Hawaii and live a beautiful dream life. But the dream is in fact a nightmare.
The sixth and last story is also set in a dystopic future. A virus has wiped out most of the population and mankind has entered another dark age with technology lost. Not just technology but language itself, resulting in concentration needed to understand the vernacular at times. Small groups of people have survived, but they have no means of travelling long distances and are scattered across the globe. There is a group who travel via a ship, the Prescients, who still have the old world’s technology, but they are outrunning the virus, looking for survivors and sanctuary. The story takes place in the Pacific Islands, precisely where the very first story takes place.
A wonderful touch is that in each story there is a character who has the same birthmark, on the same area of their body, in the shape of a comet. Does this mean that the protagonist in each story is actually the same soul or spirit reincarnated? It boggles the mind.
The novel draws the reader to the infinite connections that exist between everything on this planet. People, families, objects, thoughts. Infinite connections that many times remain through generations and the passage of time. These connections are all around us, again, many times without us realising. In essence, our world is an ongoing story. Countries and cities, chapters in the story. Episodes in history affecting periods in the present. An event in the present that will connect and affect a period years in the future. And that is why I love this book so much. It’s incredible to think that as you sit in a park having lunch under a tree, that it’s possible that an ancestor, two, three hundred years ago may have been fighting a duel or writing a poem under the very same tree. More than possible, probable. Unlimited connections.
“Your life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops.”
There is so much going on with this novel, that my review does not come close to doing it justice. It is truly a masterpiece.