If you read my review of House of Leaves, you may finish reading this review thinking I have a weakness for narrative gimmicks. You wouldn’t be wrong. Sometimes I read a book purely because it sounds like it’s doing something weird with narrative. But, in this case, I read the book because I saw the trailer for the film. And I didn’t understand it at all.
Cloud Atlas tells six stories from six different time periods:
1) notary Adam Ewing’s travels around the Chatham Islands in the 1850s;
2) composer Robert Frobisher’s apprenticeship to composer Vyvyan Ayrs in 1931;
3) journalist Louisa Rey’s investigations into a coverup surrounding a nuclear facility in 1975;
4) editor Timothy Cavendish’s incarceration in a nursing home in the present day;
5) rogue clone Somni~451’s interrogation in a dystopian future;
6) goatherd Zachry’s encounter with a technologically advanced visitor in a post-apocalyptic future.
If you’re expecting the stories to link up, get ready for some disappointment. The only connections are thematic. Well, that and one character in each story has a similar birthmark. I never did figure out why.
A half-read book is a half-finished love affair.
Here’s my biggest problem with Cloud Atlas: the stories are all split in half around the centre of the book. So you read the first half of story one, then the first half of story two, then the first half of story three, four and five. Then it’s all of story six before you get to read the ends of stories five, four, three, two and one. This has the effect of making the first half of the book an exercise in frustration and the second half one in relief. Sad to say I reached the end of Cloud Atlas and said, “I’m glad that’s over.”
Now I’m a spent firework; but at least I’ve been a firework.
That’s not to say that Mitchell is a bad writer. Far from it. I enjoyed a lot of this book, particularly Frobisher’s letters and Somni~451’s interrogation. Mitchell writes in very different styles in this novel and he does so successfully. Except for the sixth story. The style he adopted is annoying and I skimmed that story in an effort to escape.
Yay, Old Uns’ Smart mastered sicks, miles, seeds, an’ made miracles ord’nary, but it din’t master one thing, nay, a hunger in the hearts o’ humans, yay, a hunger for more.”
Aside from that awful style, Mitchell is a good writer. I would pick up another of his books, though I couldn’t recommend this one. The series of beginnings left me dissatisfied for the first half and the series of conclusions left me breathless with resolution for the second half. It’s a nice narrative device in theory, but in practice it doesn’t work.
In short, I can’t recommend Cloud Atlas. But, off the back of it, I would recommend Mitchell as a writer. Which is an usual result from an unusual book.