I seem to have had a copy of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, a Booker nominee in 2004, languishing around my house for some years, I got rid of one unread in a decluttering haul and then brought another one back in at a later stage!
Ultimately it's time came when I saw the attention grabbing trailer for the forthcoming film adaptation from the Wachowski siblings, renowned for their work on The Matrix. Absolutely intent on seeing the film and ever one for reading the book first, I embarked upon it.
Cloud Atlas is essentially a series of short stories each about 50-70 pages long which then stops at the middle and revisits each narrative in reverse order like a train going backwards. These segments are connected by the same principle "Souls Cross Ages Like Clouds Cross Skies" and is a book about reincarnation showing how two soulmates named in one life as Robert Frobisher and Rufus Sixsmith have always known each other and always been connected in different ways across their past present and future.
These sections are as follows:
The Private Diary Of Adam Ewing - a period set piece reminiscent of Moby Dick
Letters From Zedelghem - in which an arrogant young aspiring composer discovers said diary during correspondence with his friend Rufus Sixmith
Half Lives - The First Luisa Rey Mystery - Reporter Luisa Rey meets whistleblower Rufus Sixsmith and embarks on a thriller style expose
The Ghastly Ordeal Of Timothy Cavendish - A publisher is tricked into entering an old peoples home
An Orison of Somni - The story of a replicant who becomes sentient
Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After - post apocalyptic Hawaii
The principle point behind Cloud Atlas really works until we get to Timothy Cavendish, though this section is an easy enough read and a connection is provided to Luisa Rey, it is difficult to see where he fits in with regard to the novel's overall Sixsmith/Frobisher soulmates idea.
Following this the book falls apart a little, though An Orison Of Somni gets that notion back on track, it is occasionally extremely difficult to follow and because of that becomes incredibly tedious and tries your patience. This section also bears more than a passing debt to A Handmaid's Tale.
But, if I thought that of the "Somni" section, it has nothing on "Sloosha's Crossin"which is written in a dialect and is breathtaking in its utter awfulness as a read, so truly maddening that I debated whether to skip the entire section and just read the rest, but was afraid I would "miss something" and felt I couldn't "truly" claim to have read it if I skipped that part.
So, it leaves a situation for the reader in which the first third and final third of the novel are good and what matters essentially is whether you like that first third enough to be able to suffer the middle.
Despite areas of annoyance what David Mitchell does in this novel is he writes a period pastiche, then an epistolary novel, then a US style thriller, then a contemporary, then a sci-fi and then a dystopia in dialect, and he does all these sections with total literary believability. This is genuine writing talent which deserves praise. However it is also if not pretentious per se, a bit like the smug boy who always has his hand up across every subject. There is something narcissistic and ultimately masturbatory about it, which makes even the good bits difficult to like. I also didn't like the fiction-within fiction-within fiction aspect.
The idea of souls being together across many lives is a concept I find beautiful and compelling, and it's a shame this doesn't always pay off. Still the film trailer is beautiful and can be found here I hope that the Wachowski's do that rare thing and do a better job. 6.5/10