Monday, 10 September 2012

The Big Book Hangover: Cloud Atlas

 'visionary...engrossing...virtuosic...thrillingly original...stunning...a masterful feast'

I just have to post about the amazing Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell that I have been completely and utterly wowed by. 

From time to time, a book comes along that completely stuns its reader on all fronts: theme, language, style, structure, originality, meaning. It seems nothing can compare. Cloud Atlas is such a book.

It's not a recent book by any means - no, it was released in 2004 and nominated for the Booker then - but I've just gotten around to reading it recently (although the film version is due for release this October). 

What drew me to the book was all the brilliant reviews it got. Google it and you'll see it sparkling in critics and readers reviews alike. And they are not wrong. What a book! I can't remember when I read a book that has hung over me for days since I finished it. It's an all-consuming book, an amazing feat of originality, a hugely stunning one in scope and stature.

I don't really know how to describe it. It's like nothing I've read before.  It's such an unusual book, encompassing so many different genres - from historical to suspense thriller to sci-fi and dystopian. But don't dear readers, let any of these labels put you off! Because in truth, you can't label this book. It surpasses all labels of genre into a general profound parable on humanity. 

What I can tell you is that the book consists of six different stories all inter-related. From 19th century high-seas drama to inter-war years Europe and the existential ruminations of a young classical music composer, to an old slightly barmy but quick-witted publisher being chased by thugs across rural England, to a journalist on the trail of a nuclear story bust, to an escaped clone in a future corporate-ruled dystopia, to a post-apocalyptic village in Hawaii living in threat of war and destruction - there is something to suit every reader in this story! (And that's all I'm going to say about the plot!)

But no, this is not a medley or mosaic where everything connects so harmoniously at the end. It's so much more subtle than that. You'll have to look closely and deeply to see the connections, and they are so shifting and allusive, as to change and transform constantly. Clouds suggest vagueness and this is most certainly true in the interpretation of the story of the novel. 

Mitchell himself refuses to give any definitive explanation, preferring to let the story speak for itself (which it does, most exquisitely) but it is clear he was influenced by Nietzsche (mentioned in one story) who famously wrote There are no facts, only interpretations.” This certainly applies to the novel which is so open to a myriad of interpretations. The novel also works to illustrate Nietzsche’s hypothesis of 'eternal recurrence' - the idea that we live our lives again and again. It certainly seems that each of the central characters in Cloud Atlas‘s six sections seems to be a reincarnation of a previous one and certain quotes by characters would seem to confirm this, 'souls cross ages like clouds cross skies' and 'we cross, criss-cross and recross our old tracks like figure skaters.' 

The title of the book is coined by one of the characters in one of the stories, a young composer, as a name he gives to his new composition that has come upon him out of nowhere - "Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a “sextet for overlapping soloists”: piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky?" This slight meta-fiction telling is in fact Mitchell's premise for the novel. And I'm sure most people would agree it's quite revolutionary.

At its core the novel offers a treatise on humanity's will to power and ultimately self-destruction 'one fine day, a truly predatory world shall consume itself'. The first story of Adam Ewing's journal takes place in the early 19th century in the colonised isles of the South Seas. By the time the book is finished, we have come full circle to the future and back, and it seems that humanity has learned nothing in between. The final story comes back to where it started with Adam Ewing, ending the book on an affecting contemplative deduction of all that has gone on in its pages - namely the central fundamental debate between civilisation and savagery, peace and violence, weakness and power, revolving on the specifics of racial and gender inequality, the conflict between classes and ages, the strong and the weak, morality and corruption and ultimately, good and evil - as Mitchell puts it - 'the many-headed hydra of human nature.'

Sounds like pretty run-of-the-mill literature themes right? Yes, but there is nothing ordinary about the way the author presents these. Stunning, to say the least. This is a full rollercoaster ride of a book - you honestly don't know what's coming next, but the theme and the style entwine so perfectly as to make it a mystery, a philosophy, an adventure, a shocking vision, an emotionally moving tour-de-force, a tremendous tapestry of cause and effect, consequence and meaning. 

And the litmus test of a good book surely - a great book - is that we become so absorbed in its world as to be removed from our own while simultaneously placed in a better viewing position of it - more able to see all the pressing issues of humanity in a brighter, most dazzling light.

To paraphrase a review I read online - 'Cloud Atlas flips the plot and the world as we know it on its head, offering an imaginative discourse on the repercussions of our actions in this world, our human flaws and good points, all in the aim of pointing out to us a truth.' And what might that truth be? That we are all responsible for the type of world we live in and our means to shape that world. That what we believe of the world is what we will see of it, good or bad.

This is a book that should be read. One that will leave a lasting impression on you. Open your eyes that little bit wider to the world we live in, the world that goes on around us, with all its good and evil and tragedy and beauty. 

A book, that Kafka termed as 'takes an axe to the frozen sea inside of us.' 

Read it! Read it! Read it! Or if you have already done so - do share your thoughts and opinions!  I'd love to hear!

~ Siobhán


'Mitchell is, clearly, a genius. He writes as though at the helm of some perpetual dream machine, can evidently do anything, and his ambition is written in magma across this novel’s every page.' - The New York Times Book Review

'An elegiac, radiant festival of prescience, meditation and entertainment.' - The Times

'This isn't just one brilliant book, it's a collection of six completely different brilliant books, each 80 pages long and each one so good you could see it being published to ecstatic reviews... History, thriller, comedy, sci-fi - David Mitchell makes each of them look easy, and then combines them into a work that is much more than a sum of its parts.' - Sunday Independent

Read more here:

Film Release Date October 26 2012 (From the directors of The Matrix and Run Lola Run)


  1. Oooh seems like a MUST-READ by your review, now I shall!!!!

  2. Ok, your review coupled with the trailer makes this book seem like a must read. Thanks for sending us in the direction of what appears to be a great literary adventure!

  3. It most definitely is Mary. I just can't stop raving about it! And I need someone to read it quick so I can compare notes :)


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