Book Description (Amazon): A postmodern visionary who is also a master of styles of genres, David Mitchell combines flat-out adventure, a Nabokovian lore of puzzles, a keen eye for character, and a taste for mind-bending philosophical and scientific speculation in the tradition of Umberto Eco and Philip K. Dick. The result is brilliantly original fiction that reveals how disparate people connect, how their fates intertwine, and how their souls drift across time like clouds across the sky.
My Review (Spoilers!):
Executive Summary: frustrating
So the reason I have not posted anything in a whole month is because I was struggling through this book. I really really wanted to like it. I didn’t.
The book has six essentially separate story lines that continue throughout the ages. The first story was one of my least favorites and made it really hard to get into the book at all. It was set in the 1800s and was written like a classic. I have a lot of trouble reading classics because I find them too flowery. Another issue that I had was that the book was written in a way that it went like this 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. So when you returned to the story lines of stories 1 and 2 (and actually all of them really), you had forgotten where the story had left off previously. And lastly, I find that when I read books with multiple stories, there are some I enjoy and some I basically skip over because I want to read more about the stories I enjoy. This book definitely had that. I moderately enjoyed stories 3, 4, and 5, and had no interest in the others.
Story line 1: Set in the 1800’s, Adam Ewing, a notary from San Francisco is on a boat in the South Pacific where he witnesses the situation of the Maori vs. Moriori. One of the Moriori stowed away in Adam’s room and is saved by him. (Pt. 2) Adam Ewing discovers that his supposed friend Dr. Goose is poisoning him to steal his life savings. The Moriori who Adam saved in Part 1 comes back to rescue him in Part 2.
Story line 2: Robert Frobisher, a young man who has disgraced his family, appears at the home of legendary musician Vyvyan Ayrs to be his apprentice. This section is fully written in letters to Robert’s friend Rufus Sixsmith and is set in the early 1900s. Frobisher has an unusual comet shaped birthmark, and begins writing a musical piece called “Cloud Atlas”. He also asks Sixsmith to find a book written by Adam Ewing as he found part of it in Arys’ library. He begins having an affair with Vyvyan’s wife Jocasta as Vyvyan contracted syphilis at some point and is dying. (Pt. 2) Vyvan and Jocasta’s daughter returns from her boarding school professing a love for Robert. Jocasta threatens him. His continuing letters to Rufus go unanswered. Vyvyan admits he knows of the affair. As Robert is packing up to leave Vyvyan’s, he discovers the other half of Adam Ewing’s book. He finishes “Cloud Atlas” and commits suicide. I had no idea why. The Internet tells me it was because he was in love with Rufus the whole time. Missed that and it isn’t apparent when we meet Sixsmith in the next story.
Story line 3: In somewhat modern times (70s) in California, Luisa Rey works for a somewhat seedy magazine but aspires to be like her journalist father Lester. She decides to follow a lead investigating a potentially unsafe nuclear power plant after she speaks to an older Rufus Sixsmith (from Story 2) when they are stuck in the elevator together. Rufus is killed and during Luisa’s search of the room, she finds Frobisher’s letters to him and decides to acquire a copy of “Cloud Atlas”. Leaving the nuclear power plant with some reports of the secrets, her car is pushed off a cliff into the ocean. Luisa also has a comet birthmark. (Pt. 2): Luisa doesn’t die. She makes it out alive and is simultaneously still chased by the hired killer Smoke. Joe Napier helps her escape and Smoke and Napier die in a gun fight. Luisa publishes the story about the corruption.
Story line 4: In modern times, old fuddy duddy Timothy Cavendish, a publisher, is “accidentally” sent to an old folks’ home by his brother to which he cannot get out of. (Part 2) He befriends some other residents at the nursing home and they form a plan to escape. They escape and Cavendish takes up his old life quite easily and publishes the Luisa Rey story. Which seems weird because Luisa Rey is probably still alive during this story line but she never actually makes an appearance.
Story line 5: In future times in Korea, a genetically modified slave clone named Somni 451 works as a server as a restaurant. It is revealed that there are many grown people which are used for various service industries across society. Eventually Somni “ascends” and gains more knowledge and self-awareness than a clone is ever supposed to have. She becomes involved in a sort of rebel union and is used to help their cause to gain awareness of the plight of the fabricants. The story is told by way of an interviewer asking questions of Somni. (Pt. 2): Somni is still following Hae-Joo and the rebels. She finds that fabricants never are actually “released” from their servitude after 12 years like everyone believes. Instead they are killed and turned into food. She writes a book to tell her tale to the people and is then arrested and sentenced to death.
Story line 6: In even further future times, Zachry, who is impossible to understand, tells a story about his young life on the island of Hawaii. The story reflects Story 1’s plot line of two lines of native peoples–one peaceful and one warlike. Zachry is part of the peaceful one whose people continue to be picked off by the others. We also find that this civilization worships the god Somni. Periodically, Zachry’s people are visited by people, “the Prescients”, from a distant land. One time they arrive, one of them, Meronym, stays with them for a year. It is apparent throughout this story that something bad happened to civilization and that Meronym is the interviewer from Story 5. At the end, Zachry goes on the ship with Meronym as the rest of his people have been captured or killed by the Kona.
Verdict: 2.5 stars.
I felt like this book was more of a series of disconnected short stories, only half of which I liked. The stories, especially the ones I did not like, felt to be more of a writing exercise than a publishable work–made up languages, incomplete plots and a heavy handed moral compass. While there was a bit of connection between each story, it was so weak in most stories that it just felt like an afterthought. Some of the characters had these comet shaped birthmarks. Some didn’t (or if they did, I missed it). There was some suggestion that these characters were related–perhaps reincarnations of each other. I found that a distraction as it was never fully explored. I wanted more. I am not really that excited to see the movie, but I will be watching it with my book club on Sunday and will write a review of it afterwards.
P.S. I hate movie covers on books. At least I read this book electronically so I didn’t have to look at the cover that often. Also I signed it out from the library 3x (6 weeks). I think that was the longest I’ve taken on a book all year!