Fiction – paperback; Sceptre; 544 pages; 2005.
Out of all the recommendations I have received from fellow book bloggers over the past few years, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas gets mentioned more than any other book. It has been lauded by so many people I was almost too scared to read it, which is why it languished in my ever-growing to-be-read pile for more than three years.
When I finally worked up the courage to read it, I have to be brutally honest and say I could not work out what all the fuss was about.
For those of you who haven’t read Cloud Atlas, it’s essentially six novellas following the lives of six characters (all vaguely related or linked to one another in some way) and moves forward in time so that pretty much the whole scope of human history is covered, from the 19th century to some post-apocalyptic future we are yet to reach. It then works backwards, so that you reach the end via all the previous stories so you end up with 12 chapters all told. These stories are as follows:
The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing — a 19th century seafaring novella very much in the vein of Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers and Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish, right down to the use of ampersands throughout.
Letters from Zedelghem — set in the 1930s, this tells the story of an English con artist who moves to Belgium and ingratiates himself with a reclusive composer and his family. It reads like a pre-war novel and has some raunchy romance thrown in for good measure.
Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery — a fast-moving industrial espionage type thriller set in 1970s America, it reminded me a little of John Grisham’s The Firm.
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish — set in England in the late 20th century, it throws a nod to P.G. Wodehouse, as it is essentially a comedy of manners in which a 60-something editor gets mistakenly locked up in an old people’s home from which he cannot escape.
An Orison of Sonmi — an eerie science fiction thriller about clones, I found this bit the most intriguing (and moving) story in the entire novel, reminding me a little of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.
Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After — this is set in the future after the science and technology is long gone, leaving behind a world in which even the language is corrupted and humankind must eke out a very primitive existence.
By its very nature, the diverse range of genres presented here means that the reader will find some chapters more enjoyable than others. I definitely preferred the two thrillers — the espionage one and the science fiction one — which is generally indicative of my reading tastes, while I thoroughly struggled with the futuristic one written in a kind of pidgin English that bored me and confused me in equal measure. And that, I guess, is my major gripe with this novel. It works in parts but not as a whole.
I was left with the impression that Cloud Atlas is a writer’s book, not a reader’s one, because it felt like a succession of literary stunts — for the sake of it. If Mitchell was a pastry chef, I imagine he wouldn’t be happy just creating the dessert: he’d want to create Michelin-star four-course meals as well, if only to prove he could do it.
Not that there is any doubt that Mitchell can write — the six interlinked stories here are quite extraordinary examples of his ability to switch genres and time periods with relative ease. However,in my opinion, it felt like he was showing off. As much as I pride myself on seeking out different genres to read and trying books set in vastly different times and places, I don’t necessarily want to experience these all in the one novel. If I want to read a seafaring story, I’ll read one. Ditto for a thriller.
I devoted two days to Cloud Atlas while on a recent holiday in the sun, time that I will never get back. Before you all jump up and down and leave me abusive comments, I’m not saying that I completely hated the book. I simply found it hard work, and perhaps it was not best suited for a lazy beach read, something to bear in mind if you’re considering packing it in your suitcase any time soon. A worthy read, yes, an enjoyable one, so-so. And while Mitchell fans may disagree, I’d prefer Black Swan Green over this any day.