Hello Fledglings; long time no see!
Once again, it has been too long since I posted a review, but I have university assessments to blame for that. However, now that I have finished my second year, you have me to yourselves for the entire summer! Furthermore, I have returned in style, bringing you my review of the absolute smash hit, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I’m going to try and keep spoilers to a minimum, and so some parts may seem a little complex to someone who has not read it, but you know the way to solve that, don’t you?
My love affair with this book is long and tumultuous, and it begins back in 2012 when I first saw the film adaption. (I know, shame on me for watching the film before reading the book, but to be fair, I wasn’t even aware it was a book at that time!) Anyhow, it’s fair to say that I was pretty blown away by the film thanks to its breathtaking production and epic scope. It still ranks in my top five favourites to this day. I heard of the book not long after seeing the film as someone I knew was attempting to read it. However, I was put off by their misleading claim that it was ‘too complicated’ and so, much to my shame, I chose not to give it a go. That brings us to the very recent past when I showed my boyfriend the film a few months ago and thus renewed my love for the story. After watching it together, and knowing what a bookworm I am, he was sweet enough to treat me to the book and once I had read it (which was pretty much straight away, much to the chagrin of my studies), I fell in love all over again.
I don’t even know where to begin with this awe-inspiring book. I guess one of the main aspects of the book that stands out is the style and layout; the way it’s written. Mitchell has purposefully resisted definition within any particular genre, and so I love that this book has a little something for everyone; romance, action, adventure, sci-fi, history, etc. Furthermore, the ‘nesting-doll’ approach, which you will understand the meaning of if you have read the book, is one of my favourite things about this novel. Everything fits together beautifully, especially once you pick up where each narrative has left off. The links between the characters, recurring symbols and the tropes of reincarnation, karma and the domino effect have a really powerful impact. I especially love the subtle links between each timeline, for example, the recurring birthmark on each main character.
You could also say that it’s quite postmodern in a certain way; it’s very meta, very aware of itself as a collection of narratives, and you get the feeling that the author is toying with you in a way. For example, in the ‘Letters from Zedelghem’ portion of the book, the music that Frobisher is composing reflects the structure of the book itself, a moment of self-awareness that struck me as extremely intelligent. Mitchell himself has said that when he writes about music, he is in fact writing about writing. This metafictional approach is really powerful and yet somehow doesn’t detract from the immersion in the plot that Mitchell has so carefully crafted.
I was really impressed with the extent to which issues of race, sexuality and gender are explored throughout this book. Mitchell was dealing with some really hard-hitting stuff as opposed to simply glossing over the problems like so many authors do. Being a book that explores six different timelines, from the somewhat familiar narrative of nineteenth century slave trading to a post apocalyptic primitive tribe in the year 2321, Mitchell was bound to stumble upon some issues when it came to gender inequality, sexuality and, most specifically, racism. I felt that he explored these issues in a lot of depth when it could have been easy for him to remain ignorant. Not only did he confront these issues head on; they were an integral part of the plot. The way in which characters reacted to each other in terms of their race, etc played a crucial part in the story’s objective of exploring “the universality of human nature”, as Mitchell himself put it.
Furthermore, Mitchell’s engagement with these issues in relation to which timeline he is in is really interesting. In the timelines set in the past and the present, he stuck to the script as it were; portrayed events as they would have realistically happened in those times. However, he then went on to explore future times, in which we obviously don’t know how these issues will be dealt with, and so it was fascinating to see how he portrayed the potential future of the human race. I found it particularly intriguing that in the future timelines, races that have in the past been viewed as ‘inferior’ and to this day experience the most racism, e.g. people of Black and Asian descent, are portrayed as the most dominant. His exploring of this reversal of stereotypes is fascinating and really makes you think about how divisions in race are so arbitrary.
I also appreciated the shifting gender and race dynamics throughout the novel. In a true reflection of history, the earlier narratives privilege the white male experience. However, as time progresses, there is a subtle shift to a more equal standing for males and females of all races and sexualities. Luisa Rey, another one of my favourite characters, is a strong, independent woman (to use my catchphrase), and as we venture into the future, equality becomes more apparent as the experiences of all genders are races are given equal weight. Whether this was a conscious decision on Mitchell’s part, I don’t know, but as a compelling and gifted wordsmith, I imagine it was.
Mitchell truly has a gift for characterisation. Each of the main characters seem to have a soul of their own that Mitchell has bestowed upon them and so you really get sucked into the narrative with them. It’s pretty riveting, to say the least. I would say that whilst watching the film, my favourite timeline was “An Orison of Somni-451” which is set in Korea, on the verge of apocalypse in the year 2144. The mixture of action and romance was truly breathtaking and I really appreciated Somni’s true bravery and collectedness in the face of danger. However, when I read the book, this section in particular was drastically different to the film. One aspect of this was that it was somewhat less romantic than the screen adaption and so this was a little disappointing. What can I say? I’m a hopeless romantic – it’s just buried deep, deep down… Despite this, however, I wouldn’t say that this diminished this chapter in terms of it being my favourite. The plot was even more incredible than that of the film’s take on this chapter and Somni is an incredible woman who defies all the odds to try and save humanity. Despite living a life of servitude, she becomes a powerhouse female and is a true inspiration. (It’s so hard not to give away any spoilers here! If/when you read the book, or if you already have, then I’m sure you’ll appreciate what I’m trying to say!)
In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Bookclub, he claimed that the future he constructs in Cloud Atlas is not what he thinks will become of us, but rather, what he hopes will not. I thought this was very clever, as if it was almost his warning to humanity that this is how we will turn out if we don’t change our ways. This perhaps makes Mitchell sound like some kind of doomsayer, and yet the way in which he approaches these futures is not as dismal as it sounds and there is indeed an element of hope. For example (slight spoiler alert… I couldn’t resist this one), the end of “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing”, the earliest narrative which deals with issues of race and slavery, and hence the ending of the book, ends with Adam deciding to join the abolitionist movement. When faced with resistance from his father-in-law, who claims his efforts will be “no more than one drop in a limitless ocean”, Mitchell elegantly asks;
“Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”
I would recommend this book to absolutely anyone. As I have said, there is something in this book for everyone and it is written absolutely superbly. It is also full of beautiful, poignant little phrases that are quote worthy in and of themselves, my favourite of which being:
“A half-read book is a half-finished love affair.”
I think that the fact that I chose this book as the basis of my dissertation speaks volumes for how highly I rate it. I normally like to write balanced, well-rounded reviews which pick out the good as well as the bad. However, in this case, I literally cannot think of a single flaw in this book, try as I might, so I’m going to stop trying and appreciate it for what it is; a masterpiece.
Until next time,