David Mitchell's third novel, Cloud Atlas, is such an astounding feat that it's tempting to think there must be several David Mitchells, each of whom wrote one part of the book.
THE BONDS OF FRIENDSHIP
Cloud Atlas is the third novel by British author David Mitchell. The stories of six lives from five different centuries are told in differing formats. The first story, The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing is written, as the title suggests, in journal format and appears to be the fragment of a journal that American notary, Adam Ewing wrote whilst travelling the Pacific in the 19th century, in particular, Adam’s experience at the Chatham Islands near New Zealand with a native stowaway and the voyage to Hawaii. Letters from Zedelghem are written in 1931 by the disinherited, gambling, bankrupt composer and petty thief, Robert Frobisher, to his friend, Rufus Sixsmith, a physicist at Cambridge, and describe his experience as the amanuensis to a dying master composer Vyvyan Ayrs in Belgium. Half Lives -The First Luisa Rey Mystery is a narrative set in California in 1975, Luisa Rey being a reporter seeking out the truth about a nuclear energy facility after an encounter with physicist Rufus Sixsmith. The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, a memoir set in the 21st century, details the accidental incarceration into a retirement home of the elderly but still quite capable Timothy Cavendish, and his attempts at escape therefrom. An Orison of Sonmi-451, a recorded interview with a clone named Sonmi-451, is set in Korea in the 22nd century when consumerism is the byword and clones do all the work. Sonmi-451 “ascension” to a higher state and the resulting events are described. And Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After appears to be set in Hawaii in the 23rd century, after a breakdown of society has occurred. Zachry narrates the events of the visit of a Prescient named Meronym to the Nine Folded Valleys and her stay amongst the Valleysmen. Whilst each of the lives is seemingly unconnected, there are common elements in each (dreams, places, people, birthmarks, ships, music) that form a tantalising if tenuous link between each tale. Each story is nested within the next one, and Robert Frobisher’s description of his Cloud Atlas Sextet applies equally to David Mitchell’s novel: “a “sextet for soloists’: piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe and violin, each in its own language of key, scale and colour. In the 1st set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the 2nd, each interruption is recontinued, in order.” This is an interesting device and joins the separate stories, each containing hints and clues, into a compelling whole that gives the overall picture. In David Mitchell’s version of the future, propaganda, blackmail, corporate greed and corruption are still rife; little about the interaction between civilisation and “savages” changes over 500 years. That said, there’s plenty of humour amongst the action and drama, as well as some beautiful prose: “The room bubbles with sentences spoken more than listened to”. It may be a long novel, but I would have relished more of Luisa Rey and Timothy Cavendish. A marvellous read.