Some years ago, I came across a David Mitchell novel, Black Swan Green, a semi-autobiographical account of the author’s childhood in England. I was drawn into his storytelling and I am always excited to expand my library of British authors, so this year I decided to read Cloud Atlas. I had heard mixed reviews about the 2012 movie starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry (although I haven’t actually seen it myself), but I’m no stranger to reading books that turn out to be better than the film adaptations so I approached Cloud Atlas with an open mind and an excited heart. I was not disappointed.
This novel had the potential to become a mismatched cartoon strip of unrelated stories and places, but I’m incredibly glad to say that it wasn’t like that at all. The mastery of Cloud Atlas lies in its structure and in the narrative itself, which folds and unfolds like the very pages that you turn in your hand.
I’ll be honest here, at first I wasn’t convinced, but by the end I was completely transfixed. This is the art of Mitchell’s mastery. We are taken through six seemingly separate lives but told one connected narrative of humanity, bravery, and redemption. The first story is a 19th-century journal of an American lawyer traversing the Pacific. Whilst the colonial attitude of the characters is that the indigenous peoples of the islands are the savages, we soon learn that the sailors on the ships themselves are the real monsters, which is one of many turnarounds that Mitchell weaves. The second tale is told through a series of letters between composer Robert Frobisher and his lover Rupert Sixsmith. Frobisher attempts to take advantage of a reclusive old composer, stumbles across the battered manuscript of Ewing’s journal, and begins to compose his life’s work, Cloud Atlas Sextet, a piece of overlapping sounds and instruments “each in its own language of key, scale and colour”, that deftly mirrors the narrative itself. The third story takes us to California, where Rupert Sixsmith appears again as an older confidante of a young professional Luisa Rey, who is attempting to take down a corrupt nuclear corporation. This section is almost cinematic, and is the only one that is told in the third person, Mitchell exhibiting his complete technical mastery of writing. Our fourth narrator is an English publisher, trapped in an age-care facility in Hull, with only the manuscript of Luisa Rey to keep him sane. Following this, once we leave Timothy Cavendish behind, we leave the world we know behind, and our fifth narrative is the pre-execution testament of a rebellious clone, known only as Somni~451. Through this dystopian technology-fuelled future, Mitchell questions what we know and understand of humanity; Somni~451 has been created for slavery and service, but has achieved higher knowledge and intelligence of being. The central and final narrative is in a post-nuclear world, where most of the earth has been rendered inhabitable. The main character is located on a Pacific island, just as in the opening of the novel, yet Zachary’s storytelling is a far cry from the world as we know it, and offers us a glimpse of where our modern ‘civilisation’ may take us.
As we find ourselves as readers at the central point of the novel, we are rebound once again, backwards, through each of the tales, ending where we began with Adam Ewing. Through this structure, Mitchell seems to suggest that, across the ages, humanity is perhaps more closely intertwined than we believe, and our actions can reverberate in other lives more than we might think. He consistently plays with the idea of reincarnation, or the recurrence of souls, through the same repeating comet-shaped birthmark that many of the characters have on their shoulder, and, similarly, as Luisa Rey passes the preserved 19th century ship, Prophetess, that lies in the California harbour where Adam Ewing arrived from his Pacific journey, she notes “a strange gravity that makes her pause for a moment”. Here, Mitchell condenses time and our limited sense of reality, making an unreserved commentary on time and the significance of the single moment within a history of moments:
“She grasps for the end of the elastic moment, but they disappear into the past and the future.”
Whilst this has the potential to cross over into sentiment or even cliché, elsewhere in the novel Timothy Cavendish dismisses the insinuation of reincarnation as “hippy-druggy-new age” with typical British scepticism. This is where Mitchell triumphs. He builds our expectations, undercuts them, and lets us make up our own minds as readers.
What is truly striking in Cloud Atlas is the sheer humanness of the characters, the themes, and the questions that Mitchell presents. We are asked to question ourselves as people through the recurring depictions of slavery; we are asked to question ourselves as purveyors of the arts through Robert Frobisher’s selfish acts towards an ageing composer, which culminates in his own obsessive devotion to his Cloud Atlas Sextet; and we are finally asked to question our own ability to change through the many different transformations and manifestations throughout the novel. If we are truly able to influence people in times and future beyond our knowledge, then surely any kind of redemption is possible for all of us. It is no coincidence that Adam Ewing, the voice that closes the novel, becomes a talisman for change and for the emancipation of slaves despite his part in the colonial wrongdoings in the Pacific. His redemption represents the change that is possible within all of us, and he finally recognises the power of the individual. As whilst we all must come to accept that we are no more than a drop in the ocean, Ewing asks, “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”
I thought Cloud Atlas was a triumph of a novel, traversing times and places as easily as clouds cross over a blue sky, and it is a masterful storyteller that is able to achieve this.