February 2009

Every now and then we come across a book that is mind-blowing and, for some of our group though not all, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas would certainly fit that description. It is one of the most thought provoking and brilliantly written books that we have read.

Cloud Atlas consists of books within books, six stories told from the viewpoint of six different characters and set in various eras from the 19th century to the future. Structured like a palindrome we read the first half of each story in historical order and then go back to each tale in opposite order and put the pieces together to complete the cliffhanger endings from the first half. Each account is told in the voice of the protagonist using the style and speech patterns of the time except for the California 60s drama which is written along the lines of a Raymond Chandler thriller. The result is a combination of traditional journal and letter writing, suspense, sci-fi and comedy which is at times hilarious.

The novel examines the notion of civilisation in different periods and geographic areas from the 19th century into the future to the fall of the civilised world. The final and central story is told in the voice of Zachry who, after the fall, is back in the Pacific where it all begins. The grand themes of the transience of civilisation; global catastrophe; the corrupting and dehumanising nature of power; and human good amidst betrayal and brutality are developed with power and craft. Woven into the narrative is the concept of the reincarnation of souls, as in each story a key character bears the same distinctive comet-like birthmark. For Zachry “souls cross ages like clouds cross skies” (p.324) and it is this mapping out of the movement of souls from one person to another through time that gives the book its name.

It is not surprising that such a work produced a lively debate. The style in which one or two of the tales is written is so colloquial as to be difficult and can be frustrating. For some the complex structure seemed contrived. But at the end of the day the power of the writing, the force of the ideas, the warmth of the characters and the sheer artistry of the technique meant that most of us loved it.

Next month we shall be discussing East of the Sun by Julia Gregson on Thursday, 12th March.


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