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A Unique Collection That Won't Work For Everyone
on February 3, 2012
I came upon this book through the recommendation of a friend. He warned me that it would be unlike any novel I had read before, so I entered this story with excitement and curiosity. In Cloud Atlas, author David Mitchell has proved that he has the technical capabilities to write anything that his heart desires. A master of construction and dialect, Mitchell combines six separate stories into a fascinating novel that spans from the 19th century to a distant future.
The novel begins with the story of Adam Ewing, an American notary who is on a ship, headed home. Presented as Ewing's personal journal, Mitchell wonderfully captures the voice of a homesick man, full of religious zeal. When a black, foreign stowaway is discovered on board, Ewing fights to keep the man away from the harm and racism of the captain and crew. When Adam begins to feel ill, his only friend on the boat, Dr. Henry Goose, begins to treat him for a "poisonous worm" living inside of him. With the threat of death, Ewing struggles to maintain his morality in the seemingly sinful environment of the ship.
Abruptly, the novel jumps to the early 20th century with the letters of a young aspiring English composer, Robert Frobisher. He finds himself in Belgium, short of financial stability and a clear musical direction. He seeks out local composer Vyvyan Ayers, whose music he sees a revolutionary, to become a kind of understudy to the ailing composer. Ayers accepts the offer and begins to have Frobisher assist him in writing new music. Unfortunately, Robert finds himself in the middle of a forbidden affair, and begins to feel that Ayers is taking advantage of his own musical ideas.
The story of young American journalist Luisa Rey, reads like a fast paced thriller. The year is 1975 and Luisa, who is struggling to overcome the shadow cast by her famous journalist father, believes she has found the story that will provide her with her big break. As she attempts to uncover the reported corruption of a local nuclear company, she finds herself entangled in a web of conspiracy, love, and murder.
Timothy Cavendish is a sixty-something publisher who finds unexpected success after his client, a gangster who recently published his memoirs with Cavendish's company, murders a critic at a local event. The client, of course, is sent to jail, and the novel becomes a bestseller. With his newfound wealth, Timothy seems to be living the high life. When the brothers of his client attempt to violently persuade Cavendish to give them the money from their imprisoned brother's book, he flees the city. Unfortunately, he mistakes a nursing home for a hotel and finds himself unable to escape.
Sonmi-451, a genetic fabricant, created to serve food in a fast food restaurant of the dystopian future, is being interviewed about her escape and rebellion of the established society. She tells of how she was able to leave the restaurant, and discover how she, and others like her, have been taken advantage of by the established society. As she amasses knowledge she was never supposed to posses, she begins to feel emotions and make human connections that were never intended to be possible.
In the very distant future, we find Zachary, a primitive member of a tribe who is learning to face his fears in this strange world. After the death of his father and the capturing of his sibling, he blames himself for not preventing the attack. When a woman, a visitor from another group of people who seems to have more "knowledge" than Zachary's tribe, moves in with his family, he must face new threats to his tribe's beliefs and ways of life.
The stories, except for the one about Zachary, are all interrupted in the middle, giving the novel a kind of ABCDEFEDCBA arc. Mitchell ties this all together by making each new character the witness, mostly through reading, of the previous character's story. I think that each character could also be interpreted as a reincarnation of the previous because they all seem to share a similar birth mark. With each story, the author adapts to a different style of narrative, making some of the tales read easier than others. Notably, the strong dialect of the middle character makes his story nearly impossible to comprehend. Despite his ingenious presentation and construction, I couldn't help but feeling a bit disappointed at this end of this. The novel can be such a chore to read, that I didn't feel that I got some revolutionary message at the end of this, otherwise, expertly crafted story. Despite being glad that I took the time to read this unique novel, I can't help but wonder if my time would have been better spent reading something with a deeper meaning.