Book of the moment: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas cover

Cloud Atlas

Sometimes membership of a book group forces you to read something which you have been avoiding for whatever reason.  This can be a bad thing, or it can be a good thing.  In the case of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, it is a very, very good thing.  I had been avoiding the book because a great many people had told me I ought to read it, and such pronouncements often make me nervous, feeling (irrationally) that if I don’t enjoy the book I will be letting people down.  Well, everyone was right and I enjoyed it very much.

Cloud Atlas is  a difficult book to describe.  What genre does it fit into?  What is its style?  Which narrative technique does the author principally use?  The answer to all three questions is essentially ‘all of them’.  The novel is like a Russian doll, each story opening up to reveal another story nested inside it, each of them connected to the one before and the one after, and sometimes to several others as well.  We encounter epistolary fiction, thriller, science fiction, folk tale and more as we move across centuries, perhaps even millennia, in the company of a wide variety of characters.  Lawyers, journalists, hunter-gatherers, students, fast food workers, musicians and others manage to affect the lives of quite disparate people across the years as they hear, watch or somehow connect with the stories each tell.  Each story is interrupted midway through, but eventually each resumes, and it is like welcoming back an old friend as you settle back into the world that you left behind 50 or 300 pages earlier.  As an eclectic reader, the shifts in tone, style and genre intrigued and fascinated me.  Hints of Defoe gave way to a smattering of Isherwood and eventually, perhaps, to an echo of my favourite book, Riddley Walker.

I do not understand how David Mitchell conceived this book, as it is an intricate jigsaw puzzle fashioned from pieces that you would not expect to come from the same image.  In some of the sections, nothing much seems to happen, and in others there is more going on than you can quite grasp.  The narrative point of view is sometimes third person and sometimes first person, the latter coming in the form of diaries, letters, a storyteller and an interview.  It simply should not work.  But is does.  Comments about a strangely-shaped birthmark tie some of the characters together, but each segment fits into a grand scheme, each dealing in part with the idea of the “will to power” which is said to be humanity’s greatest strength and greatest weakness.  We see positive and negative effects of this will on scales ranging from the domestic to the fate of the world.  People lie, steal, cheat, blackmail, kill, poison and defraud one another, but they also struggle, adapt, rebel and endure.  There is no ‘message’ as such, just an image, or rather a collage of images.  There is also a metatextual comment about the creation of Cloud Atlas, as a composer character creates a musical work with much the same structure as the book.  The whole thing is utterly beguiling, completely fascinating.  I found that each section stayed with me whenever I had to close the book, and the whole work holds a strange power.  It is, I think, a work of genius.

Cloud Atlas has won itself a place on my list of top books (joining such titles as Riddley Walker, Tom Jones, The Remains of the Day and A Fine and Private Place).  It really is as good as everyone says it is.  Now, I just need to decide which of David Mitchell’s other novels to read next…

    • Trish
    • February 13th, 2011

    The best books I have ever read are ones that I was ‘made’ to read as part of a reading list. Left to my own devices I would probably still be reading Enid Blyton.

    I borrowed Cloud Atlas from the library a couple of years ago and when I started reading it I realised it was an amazing book. Unfortunately I only read a small amount of it before I took it back. I think maybe I need to join a book group and be ‘made’ to read it 🙂

  1. I’m just starting it – I hope I love it as much as you did!

  2. It is a very good book. I’ve read two other David Mitchell books – Ghostwritten, which is similar in style to Cloud Atlas, and Black Swan Green, which isn’t, and they were both good in different ways (although neither of them were particularly pleasant reads), but I didn’t enjoy either of them as much as I enjoyed Cloud Atlas.

    • Vickiadams
    • February 21st, 2011

    This has been sitting on my shelf for a while, being avoided for similar reasons to yours… I may have to take it down and give it a go now!

  3. I am now wondering whether I should pick up other books that fall into the same category – The Book Thief, for instance, and The Shack. The daily commute is allowing me to get a lot of reading done, so if I vow not to buy any more books until I get through the many unread books in my room, I might discover many more gems.

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