RC’16: A Book From Richard & Judy’s Book Club

Book: Cloud Atlas
Author: David Mitchell
First published: 2004

So in the original challenge, it was a book from Oprah’s Book Club, but I live in the UK and am more familiar with Richard and Judy. (Plus, I also had Cloud Atlas to hand!)

Summary: The novel is split into different parts with six narrators. The first is Adam Ewing, journaling from a mid-19th century New Zealand island. Second comes Robert Frobisher, letter writing in 1930s Belgium. The third PoV belongs to 1970s journalist Luisa Rey. Then we travel to England, in the noughties, with 60-something publisher Timothy Cavendish. Next comes Sonmi-451’s account of dystopian Korea. Finally we get to post-apocalyptic Hawaii and Zachry’s story. Then we go travel through the narrators again, in reverse order, learning more of the secrets of each and realising things are not quite as they seemed.

“Time is what stops history happening at once; time is the speed at which the past disappears. Film gives those lost worlds a brief resurrection. Those since-fallen buildings, those long decayed faces, they engrossed me. We were as you are, they said. The present doesn’t matter.”

My thoughts: I’ve wanted to read this for a while – it’s been sitting gracefully on my bookshelf for about a year. The first part is at times amusing – in its description of Henry Goose’s tantrum on the beach in the very first diary entry – and at times embarrassing, dealing with colonial attitudes to race, a history us white Brits wrongly like to brush over. The writing itself is wonderful; the voice of Adam Ewing is very well constructed.

Robert Frobisher, penniless Cambridge boy, travels to his composer idol’s home in Belgium, and on the way writes some absolutely gorgeous descriptions: “Downtrodden scriveners hurtling by like demisemiquavers”, “the locomotive’s whistle blasted forth a swarm of piccolo Furies”. Mitchell’s command of prose – particularly striking in this instalment – is masterful.

I found Luisa’s part by far the most compelling, perhaps due to its nature as a crime thriller. Her world seemed to tread the border between realism and disbelief beautifully (although, towards the end of the second half of her story, I was just thinking – spoilers – ‘Everyone dies’.)

I didn’t like Timothy Cavendish in his first narrative half – I still didn’t like him in the second half, particularly, but did like his chums Ernie and Veronica. I also thought the way Mitchell brought in the idea of abuse in old people’s homes, the powerless of the residents to respond to it and the lack of care (often) on behalf of residents’ families was really important. A number of high profile cases of abuse have become known in the UK over the last few years, and considering the book was published in 2004, it was perhaps ahead of time.

Sonmi-451 (a nod to Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451) told an intriguing tale. Even written in the unusual interview style, the only thing that slightly put me off was having to understand her dystopian world – which is always the case for me (having to get used to a story’s setting). But once I understood, I was gripped. I couldn’t wait to find out the end of her story. But then, when I did…I was a little disappointed. To lead the reader down one path and then at the end tell them they’d been walking another seems a little tricksy.

Zachry’s part was the only part that bored me, so much so I skipped over much of it. Perhaps in part because I was itching to get back to Sonmi-451’s story (her story sandwiches Zachry’s), but perhaps because I found the way it was written a little hard to get to grips with.

The way in which the stories interweave is magical – not to spoil anything, but each time the connection is revealed, you have a moment of amazement (or at least, I did, anyway). I absolutely loved the delicious moment of wry self-awareness Mitchell adds in the words of Cloud Atlas Sextet composer Frobisher:

“Spent the fortnight…reworking my year’s fragments into a ‘sextet for overlapping soloists’…In the 1st set, each solo is interrupted by its successor; in the 2nd, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished, and by then it’ll be too late.”

Overall, the “1st set” of Ewing, Frobisher, Rey, Cavendish and Sonmi are absolutely wonderful, and I wish I could forget I’ve read the book to read them again. The “2nd set”, in my opinion, does not live up to the first, though, and after finishing the book I felt it was a little anti-climatic.

Rating system: 
★☆☆☆☆ = I didn’t like it
★★☆☆☆ = It was okay
★★★☆☆ = I liked it
★★★★☆ = I really enjoyed it
★★★★★ = New favourite book

My rating: ★★★☆☆

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