Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2003) 529 p.

Another excellent book, the kind you wish you could read more often, rocketing straight into my top ten favourites of all time. Cloud Atlas consists of six separate narratives, ranging across time and space from the Pacific Ocean in the 19th century, to a dystopic sci-fi Korea, to a post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Each story cuts off halfway through until the “final” one, which is whole, and then the arc swoops back down again and finishes every narrative off, like a mirror image; a more complete and satisfying version of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, if you will.

The stories, in order, are:

The Pacific Journal Of Adam Ewing
The diary of an American notary circa 1850, returning home from a business trip to Australia, who makes a brief stop at the Chatham Isles and then sets off again bound for Hawaii; the diary cuts off in mid-sentence as we are sent to…

Letters From Zedeghelm
… a series of letters written by a Robert Frobisher, a young, bankrupt English composer in 1931, fleeing debt collectors by hopping a ferry to Belgium and offering his services as an amanuensis to a reclusive, eldery composer. Frobisher ends up stealing books from the library to pay off his debts and sleeping with the composer’s wife, but before things are wrapped up we find ourselves in…

Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery
Written in the style of an airport novel, featuring a determined young reporter taking on a corrupt nuclear power company in 1970s California. This was my least favourite of the stories, but that’s okay, because it’s not long before we’re reading…

The Ghastly Ordeal Of Timothy Cavendish
Set in early 21st century Britain, in which a man in his 60s, perfectly sound of mind and capable of living, is accidentally sent to a nursing home from which he finds himself unable to leave. Unjust imprisonment is a favourite theme of mine, so I was somewhat disappointed when I was yanked away and sent to…

An Orison of Sonmi~451
Dystopic, futuristic Korea, where an archivist is interviewing a “fabricant” on death row, tracing her life voyage from worker in a fast food outlet to champion of clone’s rights and freedom for a secret rebellion group. One of the best science fiction stories I’ve read in a long time, fully realised in technological, social and political dimensions, but the creeping sensation of humanity’s march towards destruction culminates with…

Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After
Set in a rural post-apocalyptic society in Hawaii, where young Zachary relates the story of his visitor Meronym, a woman from an advanced culture across the ocean (tones of John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids). Written in the spoken style, as a campfire story told by someone with a rough accent, which means a lot of apostrophes and phoenetic words, annoying at first but I soon grew used to it. This is the middle of the story, the mirror, and following this we retrace our steps through Korea, through Timothy’s nursing home, through 1970s California, through 1930s Belgium, all the way back to the lonely trade ship on the South Pacific in the 19th century.

These stories can easily be read on their own, but they share three common threads. The first is that each one is, ostensibly, read by a character in the next; Frobisher finds Ewing’s journal in the library at Zedeghelm, one of the characters in Half-Lives is the man Frobisher was writing to, Timothy Cavendish is a publisher who receives a manuscript for Half-Lives, etc. The second thread is that a character in each story has a comet-shaped birthmark; suggesting reincarnation, I suppose, although that doesn’t quite work out, as Timothy Cavendish was most certainly alive at the same time as Luisa Rey.

The final common thread is the theme of the book itself – one of dominion, of slavery, of power and predation and the vicious heart of human nature. Each individual story contains dozens of miseries, of humans forcing their will upon others, from the invasion of the Chatham Isles by Maori, through to the more civilised but no less malevolent imprisonment of Timothy Cavendish, right back to savage brutality in Hawaii centuries from now, as Zachary’s home valley is pillaged and his friends and family slaughtered by the brutal tribes on the other side of the island. Almost every major interaction between human beings in this book reveals, upon closer examination, the will to exert one’s influence over the other – whether with intimidating words over drinks at a formal luncheon, or with sword and spear on the battlefields of the barbaric future.

The writing itself is perfect; Mitchell paints pictures with words and constructs sentences with elaborate care, resulting in one of those few books you can pick up and read again at any point, any page or sentence, and enjoy. The simple aesthetic pleasure in seeing words strung together so well, even outside of any greater narrative scope – that’s a real accomplishment, and I could count the number of books that achieve it on one hand. I absolutely love this novel, and now I really have to read The Line of Beauty – because to have beaten Cloud Atlas for the Booker Prize, it must be staggeringly brilliant.

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