My sister likes books but she doesn’t find as much time to read as I do, so I was surprised years ago when she picked up a copy of Cloud Atlas, apparently on a whim. I was less surprised when she brought it to me asking if I wanted it because she was never going to finish it. Apparently what bothered her was the language. So, I put it on my shelf and, as I tend to do, ignored it for a few years, always meaning to read it but not getting around to it until recently.
I immediately understood my sister’s complaint about the language. The first part of the novel is set in 1850 and is in the style of a diary, the language being appropriately dated. However, if my sister had persisted beyond this section, she would have found that the next part was set closer to the future and that most of the language of the novel is more or less “normal.”
Cloud Atlas starts with American notary Charles Ewing on a sea voyage near New Zealand’s Chatham Islands. He befriends a physician, Dr Goose, who travels onwards with him to help treat his symptoms, as Ewing is unwell. Just as we get going on the next part of Ewing’s journey, the novel jumps forward in time, to follow a new character.
Now we have Robert Frobisher a musical composer currently living in Belgium in 1931, have been disinherited and found himself on the run from his creditors, he finds employment with a famous composer who he once idolised, to assist him. Where we were reading Ewing’s diaries, now we are reading Frobisher’s letters to a friend. Curiously, towards the end of this section, Frobisher himself stumbles across a small volume, which also turns out to be Ewing’s letters, before we are catapulted forward again. This time we find ourselves in the US West Coast in 1970, with a magazine reporter, Luisa Ray. So far, so If On a Winter’s Night.
The novel rattles forward in time, from one character to the next, each story tenuously connected to the one before, each cut off abruptly just as I found myself being pulled into their story. If I remember correctly, each character tells their own story, narrating (whether reliably or not) the events that unfold around them. There the similarities end. While the characters sometimes share a birthmark and while they find the stories that went before them, there doesn’t appear to be anything else that directly connects them and each character is a well written and whole person – you could easily believe that an entire novel had been written about any one of them.
As I reached the half-way mark of the novel I was surprised, by this time Cloud Atlas is set in the far far future and, I have to confess, I had to wonder where Mitchel was planning on taking it next. I had missed the obvious. He took us back in time, picking up the abandoned storylines where they had been left off and finishing each narrative until eventually, we’re way back with Charles Ewing on his sea voyage.
The result is strange but powerful. While I’m not really sure I could tell you what the novel is about as such, it is a fascinating study of human nature, a wild speculation about humankind’s future and a genuine pleasure to read.