Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I like books that are recommended to me as they may be books that I would not have found myself and, in my experience, they generally turn out to be pretty good reads like Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I might not have come across Cloud Atlas by myself so it was a good job that it was endorsed by and provided for me by my friend, Erin.

I had heard of Cloud Atlas previously but only with regard to the film and this was from watching Tom Hanks on James Corden’s Late Late Show do a brief re-enactment of all Hanks’ films within five minutes or thereabouts so that you had a snippet of each as presented by the actor himself and Corden. It was obviously manic and humorous with daft costume changes. For the Cloud Atlas excerpt, James Corden says something along the lines of “It’s so confusing!” and I have to say that I had this in mind when embarking on my reading of this book.

Hanks and Corden – Splash

But it was not the case. I didn’t find the book confusing at all.

What I will say about it is that it is unorthodox in its form as it has a distinctive narrative style, being made up of six different stories with six different characters as a focus. Mitchell has these narratives delivered through various forms: journal, letters, unpublished manuscript, memoirs, something called an orison.

We start sometime in the 1800s on a ship in the Pacific with a man called Adam Ewing who is writing a journal. He is an American in charge of delivering papers and reports on what happens on the ship as well as the islands that they visit on their voyage.

As I am writing this, I am thinking that this is going to be quite a difficult review to write as the joy is in the discovery of how Mitchell constructs his book as much as it is in the characters themselves and the scenarios and difficulties that he has them experiencing; it is ambitious and literary and indubitably, this book will be studied by students in universities in the years to come for its unique form and also for the philosophical questions that it throws up as a result.

Therefore, I’m not going to tell you about the different characters or settings or times when they are set or any of that.

So, what can I tell you? The narratives are distinct in their voice and their content, and are from varying time periods but are chronologically linear up to a point. We revisit narrators throughout the book and they are all connected in some way although this is not made obvious with direct reference by the lead characters. There are subtle nuances throughout this book which means that the attentive reader will be rewarded for their reading vigilance.

And you do have to be vigilant because whilst the book is good, it does require concentration and there are some elements of it, especially the language, in which Mitchell has changed syntax or incorporated new words in order to better conjure for us the distinct worlds of which he is the creator.

In terms of the philosophical aspect of it, Mitchell has created a novel which presents us with the interconnectedness of things such as lives, places, events, consciousness to name a few but does not engage in an overt discussion of these aspects – they are insinuated by the text. The idea is that life is a continuum in some ways and that echoes of lives lived may be sensed in the present from a place or event in the past.

The best way that I can explain this is to ask a question: have you ever had “déja vu”? The feeling that you have been somewhere before, met someone before, experienced something before but you know that that cannot be possible because you know that you have never been there before, met that person before, done the activity before?

I have, and I have to say that I quite like it. It has been more pronounced at some times than at others and it mystifies me completely as to why I should feel that way. I’m not going to debate where that feeling originates but Mitchell’s novel presents a literary hypothesis in the form of his choice of narratives and the transition between them from character to character, story to story, like ripples on a lake – they are all distinct from each other but ultimately, all connected by the same origin.

I will say that I liked some narratives more than others as some were more entertaining, more accessible than others in terms of the subject matter and the setting and also the narrator. Mitchell transports you to different worlds, diverse worlds and in this, he has to be applauded as although you are reading one book, you are essentially reading six – imagine it like a Russian doll, with each step revealing another layer, with elements of the previous but, in itself, an entirely different entity.

Nested doll – an old national Russian doll made by hand

I’m saying too much and so, with that in mind, I will tell you that Robert Frobisher was my favourite narrative and that I would recommend you read it.

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