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Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

It’s hard not to become ensnared by words beginning with the letter B, when attempting to describe Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell’s third novel. It’s a big book, for start, bold in scope and execution–a bravura literary performance, possibly. (Let’s steer clear of breathtaking for now.) Then, of course, Mitchell was among Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists and his second novel number9dreamwas shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Characters with birthmarks in the shape of comets are a motif; as are boats. Oh and one of the six narratives strands of the book–where coincidentally Robert Frobisher, a young composer, dreams up “a sextet for overlapping soloists” entitled Cloud Atlas–is set in Belgium, not far from Bruges. (See what I mean?)

Structured rather akin to a Chinese puzzle or a set of Matrioshka dolls, there are dazzling shifts in genre and voice and the stories leak into each other with incidents and people being passed on like batons in a relay race. The 19th-century journals of an American notary in the Pacific that open the novel are subsequently unearthed 80 years later on by Frobisher in the library of the ageing, syphilitic maestro he’s trying to fleece. Frobisher’s waspish letters to his old Cambridge crony, Rufus Sexsmith, in turn surface when Rufus, (by the 1970s a leading nuclear scientist) is murdered. A novelistic account of the journalist Luisa Rey’s investigation into Rufus’ death finds its way to Timothy Cavendish, a London vanity publisher with an author who has an ingenious method of silencing a snide reviewer. And in a near-dystopian Blade Runner-esque future, a genetically engineered fast food waitress sees a movie based on Cavendish’s unfortunate internment in a Hull retirement home. (Cavendish himself wonders how a director called Lars might wish to tackle his plight). All this is less tricky than it sounds, only the lone “Zachary” chapter, told in Pacific Islander dialect (all “dingos’n’ravens”, “brekker” and “f’llowin'”s) is an exercise in style too far. Not all the threads quite connect but nonetheless Mitchell binds them into a quite spellbinding rumination on human nature, power, oppression, race, colonialism and consumerism. –Travis Elborough

MY REVIEW

David Mitchell writes in a really masterful style of writing with an excellent command of the English language. This story is split into different interlacing parables. There are six different testaments that span several centuries each one breaks a period of time and space. The stories are very interesting but I found as the stories went by nearer to second half of the book I was not immersed enough into the story. So if it lacks in anything this novel is some gripping and immersing element, sometimes I found I did not care enough for the characters due to the changing of testaments, where in one straight testament you would build the audience and glue and bond them to certain characters. But then again that was probably the authors set out task to write in this way, a technique used by Italo Calvino, actually this story written in a similar fashion to one I have read called Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino.
I loved the character Timothy Cavendish a very English old school character had very funny insight into the world. I loved his take on the underground and London.
“Over an hour later London shunted itself southwards, taking the Curse of the Brother Hoggins with it. Commuters, these hapless souls who enter a lottery of death twice daily on Britain’s decrepit railways, packed the dirty train. Aeroplanes circled in holding patterns over Heathrow, densely as gnats over a summer puddle. Too much matter in this ruddy city.”

You will find some really good passages in this story, works of a skilled writer. The novel needs a re-read for me to grasp the whole picture better.

Excerpts

“Three or four times only in my youth did I glimpse the Joyous Isles, before they were lost to fogs, depressions, cold fronts, ill winds, and contrary tides … I mistook them for adulthood. Assuming they were a fixed feature in my life’s voyage, I neglected to record their latitude, their longitude, their approach. Young ruddy fool. What wouldn’t I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds.”

“He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!” Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

“Faith, the least exclusive club on Earth, has the craftiest doorman. Every time I’ve stepped through its wide-open doorway, I find myself stepping out on the street again.”

“We—by whom I mean anyone over sixty—commit two offences just by existing. One is Lack of Velocity. We drive too slowly, walk too slowly, talk too slowly. The world will do business with dictators, perverts, and drug barons of all stripes, but being slowed down it cannot abide. Our second offence is being Everyman’s memento mori. The world can only get comfy in shiny-eyed denial if we are out of sight.”

Reviewed by Lou Pendergrast on 02 August 2011

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