Book review: Cloud Atlas

I've been holding out for a David Mitchell interview for a while, but sadly, as I somehow don't think it's going to happen, I'm doing the next best thing. In honour of the Cloud Atlas film coming out everywhere but New Zealand and Australia (at least until January 2013) - I'm going to review the book. Perhaps Mitchell will read this and pity me, and grant me an audience.

I will have to be honest from the start and tell you that Cloud Atlas is my all-time favourite novel. For a long time, that spot was a toss-up between East of Eden by John Steinbeck, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

But Cloud Atlas surpassed them all and shot to the top of the list - and I only read this book last year. So this will probably be not so much a review as a rave, an ode, a sonnet to the greatness that is the "untellable tale".

Cloud Atlas was described as "unfilmable" until the Wachowski Brothers (or Wachowski brother and sister, as one of them got a sex change) - the same ones who wrote and directed The Matrix - took on the challenge.

The best way to describe the novel is as speculative fiction, consisting of six interlocking stories that nest into each other like Russian dolls. The stories range from the historical journal of a man called Adam Ewing, to the manuscript of a thriller novel, a comedy of errors about an old man stuck in a kooky retirement home, a vain, penniless young English musician who takes on a job as an older composer's amanuensis, an old man telling the story of his youth in post-apocalyptic Hawaii and, my favourite, the tale of a clone called Sonmi-451, bred to work in a futuristic subterranean McDonald's called Papa Song's. 

The reasons I adore Cloud Atlas are varied and complex. It is a bit of a slow burn, and people who judge it based on the first story (The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing), will be in for a surprise. It is a novel though, and not a collection of short stories - which means that the stories are all connected in some way.

The arrogant young English amanuensis, for example, finds half of Adam's journal in a private library collection, Sonmi-451's story is in an orison (a futuristic recording device) watched by Zachry, who lives in the post-apocalyptic world, and Luisa Rey's story is the draft of a thriller novel submitted to the old publisher who is tricked into incarceration in a nursing home.

While the film seems to have taken a sledgehammer approach to the big "themes" that are only touched upon softly by Mitchell in the novel, I don't think that's necessarily a negative thing. The movies are a different beast from books.

Mitchell has mentioned before that he is an atheist and doesn't believe in reincarnation and past lives, a leitmotif of the novel, which is named after the Cloud Atlas sextet written by Robert Frobisher, the young amanuensis. I like the way that Mitchell treads lightly over those philosophical debates of rebirth.

A.S Byatt, who writes far better reviews than I ever will, said of the book that she "can't bear the journey to end". She exhorts the reader to "trust the tale" - all wise advice when it comes to reading Cloud Atlas.

In another post, I've mentioned the idea of reading serendipity before - finding that part of a story where your soul sighs and just knows that, crap, you are going to fall into another world and there's not a damn thing anyone can do to pull you out of it.

What really works about Cloud Atlas is that Mitchell isn't afraid to tell a story. He's not afraid to pull at your heartstrings or to rework tales oft told, making them his own by the power of great imagination and talent. It is a wonderful, groundbreaking piece of work that speaks to the human condition. A little like standing outside on a dark night, looking up at the orb of the moon and the stars and realising that our lives are less than a speck in the fabric of the cosmos. A twinkle in time.

Have you read Cloud Atlas before, or do you plan to before the movie comes out?

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