on 18 July 2014
I first read this book when it came out in the early noughties, and was blown away by both the inventive structure and compelling storytelling. I recently saw the film (a great adaptation, incidentally), which inspired me to do a cover to cover reread and it lived up to my memories.
I'm a big believer in not drawing too distinct a line between "genre fiction" (fantasy, paranormal, sci-fi etc) and more high-brow, literary novels. This book is one of the best examples of the idea that it's possible to write a novel that both tells a fantastical story and does amazing things with prose, structure and narrative. The fact that it was nominated for both the Booker Prize and the X prize tells its own story.
The book is almost a collection of seven short stories. With the exception of the one in the middle, which runs straight through, each gets to a halfway point and is then interrupted by the next story, which follows a character who is reading the text the reader has just read. Halfway through the book, it then starts working it's way back through the stories, completing each of them in turn. Throughout, there are hints that all of the stories' main characters may be reincarnations of each other (most obviously, they all have the same comet shaped birthmark, but there seem to be some overlap of memories and fears), but the author doesn't make it simple - the timeline doesn't quite seem to allow it, and some characters seem to be fictional within other character's universes.
It's the intricate way that the stories fit together that I really love about this book, especially the little clues and the self-references, whether its a piece of music composed by one character that has the same structure, a character dreaming about something that happens to another protagonist centuries in the future, or a character wondering whether the journal he is reading (which readers have also just read) is a forgery, on the basis that some of what is said seems to convenient. This is definitely a book that benefits from a re-read and some close scrutiny of the text.
That said, it's not just structure over substance. Each of the individual stories are beautifully plotted and written. The brilliant thing is that they are not only set in wildly different time periods (the earliest is in the 1800s, the latest in a far distant post-apocalyptic future) and geographical locations, they are also very different genres and written in a corresponding style. So the first story is meant to be the journal of a nineteenth lawyer on a sea voyage - it's written in diary format, and in the very mannered, formal language of the time, while a 1970s thriller is written like a pulpy novel, and so on. Mitchell masters all of these styles beautifully and has a bit of fun playing around with them.
Most fundamentally, however, when all the stylistic cleverness and post-modern twistiness is stripped away, there are still seven good, strong stories. Inevitably, in this sort of book, each reader, even if they love the whole thing, is going to find themselves enjoying some sections more than others. For me, a story (told in the form of letters) of a debauched 1930s musician and another focussing on a rebel clone in a futuristic Korea are up their with my favourite stories in their own right. In particular, I found the latter story reminded my of Never Let Me Go, which came out at more or less the same time, but I actually found the Cloud Atlas chapter to be better, even though it was only one small part of a much bigger whole. The seventies thriller and the modern day tale of a hapless literary agent were also genuinely enjoyable reads. Despite my love of the book, I have to admit that I found the sea journal and in particular, the post-apocalyptic tale (told as an oral history, in a made up pseudo-English reminiscent of that in A Clockwork Orange) to be rather heavy-going. In those cases, while I still admired the author's talent and the contribution they made to the whole, I struggled to actively enjoy them. Interestingly, I've seen other people who feel exactly the opposite way about which stories do and don't work - they are all extremely well written and imaginative, beyond that, it's really a matter of personal taste. I would, however, suggest that if the first story doesn't grab you, you still push on and see whether you enjoy the others more.
Finally, not content with both the stories and the metaphysics, the book as a whole has a lot of quite deep things to say about human nature, especially the destructive will to dominate others. As one characters puts it, "the weak are meat, the strong do eat." Various other interesting themes also flow through the book, enriching it without it ever starting to feel like a lecture.
It's by no means the easiest read. You'll have to work a little just to get through it, and to get the most out of it and make all the connections, it's worth going slowly and/or re-reading. There are also likely to be some sections that readers don't enjoy as much as others. Nonetheless, I'd hugely recommend this to anyone who wants to try something different, to have their mind twisted, and ultimately, to enjoy a good story and some seriously impressive writing.