Monday, 27 August 2012

Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell

When the trailer for the new movie Cloud Atlas was released about a month ago, everyone was horribly confused. Just what was this movie actually about? I didn't watch the trailer myself, still not quite sure why, but was very aware of the confusion surrounding it. That's why, when I was at the library next and saw it sitting on the shelf, I decided to pick it up and give it a go. Surely, if I could read the book, then I would understand the movie and see just what all these people were talking about. And it was shortlisted for the Booker the year it came out so it must be good, right?

I don't even really know how to describe the plot of Cloud Atlas. It's a series of separate narratives, all taking place in very different places and times. The book opens with the diary of a solicitor from San Francisco, on his way home from New Zealand in the late 19th century. His story ends midway through (as, indeed, all the stories will, although this one does end mid sentence), and you find yourself reading a set of letters from one dear friend to another, detailing the exploits of one Robert Frobisher, a young composer living his life quite extravagantly and dangerously in Belguim in-between the world wars.

The story turns from Frobisher to Louisa Rey, an investigative reporter in California in the seventies. Her story reads like a crime thriller, with short chapters and explosive cliffhangers. On one such cliffhanger, the story then switches to the tale of an elderly publisher, who's just lucked out on his latest autobiography becoming a best seller due to a rather elaborate stunt pulled by the author. Just as he's living the high life, however, he has to go on the run due to some thugs trying to hustle themselves into a share of the profits.

Things become a little strange (not that they weren't before but still) with the next story, the futuristic The Orison of Somni-451. This story is about, essentially, a clone worker who slowly begins to realize that she's more than what she's supposed to be. Each of the stories is amazing in its own right but Somni-451 is astounding, in my opinion. It's a real science fiction masterpiece, within an amazing novel of its own.

Lastly, you reach the center of the book with a post-apocalyptic tale of a young goatherd whose family ends up taking in a stranger who wants to learn more about their tribe. This story, quite different from the rest, continues on longer as, in the center of the book, it is not divided in half. The reader follows Zack and while reading this bit, I think this is where the novel really begins to gel. The story is told and slowly, in reverse order, you begin to read the second half of each of the earlier narratives. And that's when it hits you: this book is spectacular.

I stayed up until 3:30 in the morning to finish this novel and then spent the next hour looking up things about it and writing friends to pick it up. I just honestly think it's amazing. It takes six very different characters, six very different writing styles, six very different plots to tell a story about the human spirit and the triumphs and failures of power. There are small connections woven throughout the stories that tie them together but even without those, the general theme shines through without much work. The characters speak for themselves and no amount of author gibberish clogs the main message.

This is one of those books that you finish and then sit in awe for awhile, not even entirely sure what to do with yourself anymore. It hangs over you like a benevolent cloud and all you can think is, when am I going to read another book that good? 

If you're a fan of epistolary novels, diary novels, crime thrillers, science fiction, bumbling old british men, post-apocalyptic fiction, interwoven morals or just books in general, this is the book for you. I really encourage you to give it a try. It's definitely worth it.

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