David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, since its release eight years ago has slowly spread around the world and become a cult novel for the young at heart. It has a kind of silent attraction and has spread by word of mouth a bit like The Lord of the Rings did 60 years ago, all three volumes following on The Hobbit. It also took off slowly from its base in England.
Cloud Atlas was shortlisted from the Man Booker Prize in 2005. It did win Best Read of the Year from Richard and Judy. It has also been made into a movie that was launched worldwide on 26 October 2012. So far the movie has had a mixed reception - critics had advised that the book was so complex that it could not be made into a film.The structure of Cloud Atlas is unique. It has been compared to a Russian doll where when you open one, another doll is found inside, and then another, and so on. This novel is actually more than that, as it both unpacks the dolls and then puts them back together. The final doll that is solid, within the other five in Cloud Atlas is a post-apocalyptic story. The links between the first five and last five chapters are surprising and tenuous.
They involve a journal kept in 1849, its being read someone else in 1936, a series of related letters appearing in the 1970s, a populist novel presented to a publisher in 2012, and so on. This happens in ascending order until reaching the solid core "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Everythin' After" (pages 247 to 325, which at 78 pages is the longest part of 11 in this book). Following that part the novel descends back over the previous five sections - using the same name as the first time-to reach a conclusion to each of them.
The fifth level, An Orison of Somni-452, is 60 pages going up and 38 pages going down, so together at 98 pages might be called a novella. The fourth level, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish totals 75 pages, while Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery combined makes 105 pages-the longest combined segment in the book.
Letters from Zedelghem make a whole of only 80 pages, while the opening and closing sequences, The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing are 39+38=77. Recounting the structure of this unusual book may seem strange, but it is the essence of what cult followers delve into when elevating a novel to some special status for the few who know.
The opening part features a young lawyer, Adam Ewing who, when his sailing ship is stranded at Skirmish Bay on the Chatham Islands (named after a British sailing vessel 50 years before) off New Zealand becomes the victim of a perverted Captain Molyneux and an unscrupulous quack called Doctor Henry Goose, who enjoys killing his patients with arsenic to be able to deprive them of whatever wealth may be in their possession. Adam becomes involved with a Maori slave, Autua, and each will save the other's life. This leads to Adam declaring that he is an abolitionist.
Next, in June 1931, Robert Frobisher of Saffron Walden flees England and his male lover Rufus Sixsmith to become the amanuensis in Bruges, Belgium, of a famous but now elderly and declining composer, Vyvyan Ayrs.Robert is an aspiring composer who is manic-depressive and sexually aggressive with both men and women.He writes vivid letters back to Sixsmith in England from his vantage point at Chateau Zedelghem. Ayrs will reject Robert's advances, but perhaps not others in the household. Robert is able to write his own magnum opus, but afterwards loses the will to live. Before departing he writes a last letter to Sixsmith and encloses his Cloud Atlas Sextet and Adam Ewing's Pacific Diaries.
The third part shifts to California in the 1970s and the life of an investigative journalist, Luisa Rey, who is after a world-shaking story. She latches on to a rumour of a defective nuclear power plant on Swannekke Island and finds from a secret report that there are vested interests and hidden layers that could cost her, her life. Luisa Rey's father was also a famous journalist who chased scoops and taught her determination and the will to take risks.
She is helped by Rufus Sixsmith before he is murdered-he is now a nuclear scientist. Luisa is next on the hit list.Surviving and successful, she will obtain Robert Frobisher's Cloud Atlas Sextet and is surprised that she already knows it. Timothy Cavendish at 66 is at a stage in his life where success has escaped him. His most recent book, Knuckle Sandwich, that he both edited and published for Dermot 'Duster' Hoggins has not been selling well. It received a negative review in the Trafalgar Review of Books by Sir Felix Finch. One evening during the Lemon Prize Award in a penthouse on top of a skyscraper in Bayswater, Duster got his revenge on Sir Felix, throwing him over the railing to his death.
The resulting publicity turned Knuckle Sandwich into a best seller and made Timothy Cavendish rich-or so he thought. He was not to enjoy his new status for long, and when the shades of life threatened him he retreated to his brother Denholme for help. Timothy thought he was fleeing to a country inn, but instead found himself incarcerated in Aurora House, a private sanatorium used by wealthy families to get rid of their unwanted relatives.
Can Timothy Cavendish ever get his life back? Inspired by the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Next he will.Part five is set in a futuristic Nea So Copros-in reality in Korea-in the year 2144. A genetically-engineered fabricant, or clone known as Sonmi-451, is being interviewed by an Archivist about what has happened to her, so that Unanimity can gain information to prevent such occurrences in the future. Has she been led astray by Yoona-939? What does "Lite is Life" mean? They faced Xultation. There was a world outside where they lived.
This was Yoona's secret, her Book of Outside that they would visit. Yet they were still slaves to Seer Rhee and Papa Songs. Yoona could say things like, "Better a Soulless clone than a Souled roach". They secretly watch snippets of an old film, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish and learnt the phrase, "I will not be subjected to criminal abuse". A number of unusual men help Sonmi in "The Souling of a Fabricant" and in the struggle against corpocracy.
In the apex story Zachry Bailey, an elderly codger, relates a tale of his younger days, when on the Big Island in the Hawaiian chain a tribe, the Kona, destroyed his people. He was helped to escape by someone from an ultra-modern civilization, Meronym, a Prescient. After Zachry and Meronym had climbed to the heights of Mount Kea he found on the descent that he could confront the voice that haunted him of Ol' Georgie, the Devil.
As you read this novel note the magic number six and its many appearances. It is literary devices like this that have helped to give Cloud Atlas a cult following. Some reviewers have refused to review this book because they pronounced it unreadable. Other have exulted over its originality, prose and structure and given it their blessing.It is really for you to decide.