Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2004. 529p

Cloud Atlas has an unusual structure consisting of six separate narratives all in different styles – journal, epistolary, thriller, realist (for want of a better term,) interrogation transcript and memoir, wrapped round each other in a way which the author compares at one point to a matrioshka (what in my youth was called a Russian) doll and another as a successive series of interrupted musical phrases which are recapitulated and developed – in order – later. The second is a more accurate comparison as the tales are not truly enveloped one within the other. I would rather say they are ensleeved. (Or even enleaved: as in a book.)

While each section is perfectly fine on its own the connections Mitchell makes between them can be a touch tenuous; even a little forced. The breaks between the sections sometimes, disconcertingly at first, occur in mid-sentence; which admittedly is a brave move.

In order the stories concern a nineteenth century American heading back across the Pacific to the Californian gold rush; a post-Great War English musician acting as an amanuensis to a better known ex-patriate composer; a 1970s female reporter getting herself in too deep in a conspiracy involving a nuclear power company; a small time (contemporary?) English publisher, who is fleeing from gangster-like creditors, being trapped in a care home for the elderly; a fabricant (cloned) slave in a Future Korea who is “transcended” for revolutionary purposes; and an apologia pro vita sua from a man in an even further future post-lapsarian Hawaii.

The latter two segments employ distorted language. The Korean set one has “x” where we have “ex” (for example “xample” and “inxistent”) and stripped down spelling (“brite”) while the Hawaiian section is written in a more extremely evolved language – reminiscent of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker – which is strange to read at first but soon becomes familiar. The inclusion of these two narratives allows the novel as a whole to be considered Science Fiction, and categorised by me as such, though Mitchell may disclaim the description.

Each of the six sections is totally self-consistent and does not depend on any of the others for its individual resolution and each is as engaging as the next. Mitchell’s ability to portray character and deliver plot is unquestionable.

The over-arching structure could be viewed as an excuse to cobble together six novellas which might have been unremarkable if kept separate; but that would be a little harsh. While it certainly demonstrates Mitchell’s mastery of various writing styles, whether it constitutes a coherent whole is another matter.

Cloud Atlas is an impressive enterprise, though, whichever way you consider it. A true novel if you will, worth anyone’s reading time.

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