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Book Review – Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – 4 1/2 stars

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell book cover

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell book cover

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is a highly complex, original and accomplished book!  Mitchell creates 6 different and believable realities in different times and locations and manages to tie them together into one of the most amazing books that you will ever read. Mitchell proves himself as a highly talented and imaginative writer in this stupendous offering. Having said that the reason why I didn’t give it 5 stars is because it’s not a hugely compelling or beautiful read.

The story starts with an extract from the journal of Adam Ewing in 1850 during his crossing of the Pacific Ocean from Australia to San Francisco. Adam is a gullible and hypochondriac character and so not particularly likable. He is taken for a ride by a conman Dr Henry Goose and I didn’t feel much sympathy for Ewing because he is so weak. There is an awful scene on the high seas of sodomy and suicide that was difficult to read. I was hoping that Ewing and Goose would develop a beautiful friendship like Aubrey and Maturin in the excellent O’Brian series but it wasn’t to be. In fact beautiful friendship is unfortunately not a hallmark of this book. Instead the central characters are all loners.

The most interesting aspect of this section is the description of the Moriori people of Chatham Isle, which is a group of small islands to the north of New Zealand:

…the Moriori were once Maori whose canoes were wrecked upon these remotest of isles

The Moriori have lost the ability to build sea-faring canoes and navigate. In this respect Mitchell invokes the research of Joseph Henrich (who has an excellent Edge talk) of Tasmania, an island off the coast of Australia. Up until about 10,000 years ago, the archaeology of Tasmania looks the same as Australia, and then suddenly after 10,000 years ago sea level rises and Tasmania is cut off from the mainland and the archaeology of Tasmania becomes less complex. Interestingly Mitchell even compares the Moriori to the Tasmanians:

…the Moriori lived as primitive a life as their woebegone cousins of Van Diemen’s Land

The Moriori people have a strict moral code dictating that anyone who spilled the blood of another person must be shunned from the society. Mitchell also has Ewing fall into the crater of an extinct volcano where he find dendroglyphs of faces carved into tree trunks and I will return to this later:

First one, then ten, then hundreds of faces emerged from the perpetual dim, adzed by idolaters into bark, as if Sylvan-spirits were frozen immobile by a cruel enchanter.

The second part of the story follows the follies of a composer and cad named Robert Frobisher who, after finding himself bankrupt and disinherited, becomes the amanuensis of famous composer Vyvyan Ayrs in Zedelghem, Belgium in 1931, told through Frobisher’s letters to his friend/ex-lover Rufus Sixsmith. While searching for books to steal from Ayrs and sell through his friend Sixsmith in London, Frobisher discovers the diary of Adam Ewing and reads it with great interest but is scornful of Ewings’ naivety but interested to find that he has the same birthmark as Ewing. I didn’t find much of interest in the section on Frobisher who betrays the syphilitic Ayrs to sleep with his wife and finally comes undone when he believes that Ayrs daughter is also in love with him. Mitchell like Murakami shows the reader how accomplished he is by discussing complex musical themes. It is interesting that the number six recurs through the book, e.g. 6 stories in 6 countries, Frobisher writes a sextet (Cloud Atlas), his friend/ex-lover is called Sixsmith who in the 3rd story is 66 years old.

The third part of the story has journalist Louisa Rey as the central character in the fictional city of Buenas Yerbas, California, in 1975. It introduces the quest of the Nobel-prize winning nuclear scientist Dr Sixsmith (Frobisher’s friend/ex-lover) to expose the risk of nuclear disaster of the power plant where he was working. This section is the most thrilling to read with it’s mystery novel style. Several parts of this section are quite convenient, e.g. Rey’s survival when her car is pushed into the ocean and again when blasted by a bomb and so it’s difficult to gauge whether any of it is realistic or not. After the murder of Dr Sixsmith, Rey pretends to be Sixsmith’s sister and so comes into possession of the letters from Frobisher to Sixsmith. She is fascinated to discover that she has the same birthmark as Frobisher and tracks down a rare recording of his sextet.

In the fourth part we follow the film script written by and about publisher Timothy Cavendish in London in the present day. Cavendish is grossly unlikeable and I found it impossible to feel empathy towards him when his brother had him committed to a nursing home when he was only 65 or when mugged by 3 teenage girls.

A trio of teenettes, dressed like Prostitute Barbie, approached, drift-netting the width of the pavement. I stepped into the road to avoid collision. But as we drew level they tore wrappers off their lurid ice-lollies and just dropped them… ‘You know, you should pick those up.’ A snorted ‘Whatchyoo gonna do ’bout’ it? glanced off my back… ‘I have no intention of doing anything about it,’ I remarked, over my shoulder, ‘I merely said that you —’ My knees buckled and the pavement cracked my cheek… A sharp knee squashed my face into leaf-mould. I tasted blood. My sixtysomething wrist was winched back through ninety degrees of agony, and my Ingersoll Solar was unclasped.

While incarcerated in the nursing home Cavendish reads the manuscript of the novel about Louisa Rey and the nuclear plant and is uncomplimentary about it, casting doubt on the veracity. The part of the Cavendish ordeal that I most enjoyed was when Cavendish escapes with 3 others and they are about to be recaptured and features Mr Meeks who until then has seemed to be suffering from dementia and has barely strung 3 words together until then:

The octogenarian leapt on to the bar, like Astaire in his prime, and roared this SOS to the universal fraternity (of northern English soccer fans in the bar) “Are there nor trrruuuue Scortsmen in tha hooossse?”…”Those there English gerrrrunts are trampling o’er ma God-gi’en rrraights! Theeve used me an’ ma pals morst direly an’ we’re inneed of a wee assistance

In the fifth part we find ourselves in post-apocalyptic North Korea with the clone Sonmi~451 sometime in the future. We are introduced to a new vernacular where cars are Fords, cameras are Nikon’s and McDonald’s is Papa Songs. Clones work tirelessly for 11 years and then go to the hallowed land of Hawaii for retirement. This story is the record from an interview of the clone Sonmi~451 before her execution. I found it an interesting parallel that one central character of the excellent novel and Pulitzer Prize winner The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (also set in North Korea) conducts interviews of enemies of the state prior to execution (the same for Sonmi-451 in Cloud Atlas).  This section (and the final section) really showed an extension of Mitchell’s talents as a writer because he created a plausible different world complete with new technology, vernacular, society and norms. The scene on the McDonald’s ship that doesn’t actually take them to Hawaii but instead executes them was powerful! I thought it was a bit trite that in the end Sonmi asked to be allowed to watch what was presumably quite a stupid film about Timothy Cavendish and it turns out that she was being set-up for a show-trial. Didn’t the corpocracy realise that by allowing Sonmi to ascend and write her Declarations that she would become a martyr and therefore live forever? I love that she quoted Seneca to Nero:

No matter how many of us you kill, you will never kill your successor.

The final part of the story takes place further into the future than Sonmi’s time, when environmental damage is so extreme that only a few places on earth are still habitable, and follows Zachry who gains access to the recording of Sonmi prior to her execution. I thought that this civilisation in the valleys had deliberate parallels to the Moriori:

  • in the carving of ‘souls’ onto branches of wood (like the dendroglyphs that Ewing discovered);
  • the attack by the Kona (akin to the invasion and enslavement of the Moriori by the Maori);
  • the loss of hereditary knowledge and skills among the valley people of Hawaii so that even rudimentary skills have been lost; and
  • the use of a gentle moral code by the valley people akin to that of the Moriori unlike the enslaving Kona.

It was interesting that Mitchell took us to the hallowed Hawaii (supposed resting place for clones after 11 years of hard service) in the final section of the book. I did think it a bit strange that Sonmi’s Declarations were so well known even in Hawaii among humans (not clones) and there is no explanation of how that knowledge could have travelled to Hawaii and passed from clones to humans.

Supposedly each protagonist is a reincarnation of the others, hence the shared birthmarks (except Zachry) but it’s strange that Louisa and Timothy must be contemporaries yet are ostensibly both reincarnations. It’s a bit convenient that in each case some record of the previous character comes into their possession but I guess that Mitchell wanted to tie the stories together. I do think that wasn’t necessary but I don’t mind and it was a bit thrilling for the reader to re-visit the previous characters, although Mitchell does get the new character to undermine the veracity of the previous account which is an interesting ploy and made me feel a bit undermined and doubtful.

Re-reading my review it seems that I have focussed on the negatives but I really am in awe of this book, hence the 4 1/2 stars, and I just put down points here that I found most thought-provoking.


7 comments on “Book Review – Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – 4 1/2 stars

  1. William Filgo
    October 28, 2013

    How did one protagonist reincarnate into two that exist at the same time, namely Frobisher into Cavendish and Rey?

  2. William Filgo
    October 29, 2013

    I went to that website and read all the comments. There is a lot of interpretation and it drives me to wonder about some factual anomalies from an author that is meticulous in researching history. In 1820, Great Britain outlawed the transportation of slaves on the high seas and enforced this edict at great cost. It was illegal in the United States to import slaves by the time the first story is set. Ewing is a notary and is performing legal acts that cannot be legal at the proposed time of this story. Is this a clue from the author to us, and what does it mean?
    I haven’t read the book, I have seen the movie twice. In the movie, Sachs is delayed on his flight by the air traffic controllers strike, which happened in Reagan’s presidency (1983). The timeline is 1975, which is Reagan’s governorship. The depiction of the reactors is from the 1980’s, they didn’t have those large containment structures in the 1970’s. The lack of those billion dollar structures did make them more susceptible to catastrophic release of radioactive contamination, witness Chernoble and Fukishima.

    • strivetoengage
      October 29, 2013

      Hi William, wow, your knowledge of history is impressive! I suggest that you do read the book and I wonder if some of these inconsistencies may have been introduced by the film makers?
      I don’t have the book with my right now but I don’t recall any mention of transportation of slaves in the section on Ewing in 1850. It’s true that Ewing rescues Autua (who is Moriori) from slavery to the Maori people of Chatham Isle but that’s all that I can recall with respect to slavery.
      I haven’t seen the film yet so I can’t comment on the Sachs scene or what the reactors look like because the reactors are not described to that level of detail in the book.

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This entry was posted on October 22, 2013 by in fiction and tagged , , .
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