Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell - Book Review

'Cloud Atlas' six stories are both highly readable and award worthy. Potentially a modern classic'

Cloud Atlas may prove divisive for some people. Not on it's quality, which is nigh on near impossible to fault, nor its entertainment value, which is high. No, the arguments will come when somebody asks 'so, which story did you think was best then?'

Intriguingly split into six different books writer David Mitchell also makes the decision to further divide the tales up into two, building up to the middle sixth story and then concluding each subsequent tale counting downwards, until we are back to one (if that is confusing, and I fear it is, the structure can be represented like so: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1). The result is six tales, with loose links between them or 'over-lapping souls', which are all highly readable but which all come with a very individual sense of narrative voice and purpose.

Take Letters From Zedelghem for instance (book number two and my personal favourite). As the title suggests, the book is made up of the letters of Robert Frobisher to his friend and one time lover Rupert Sixsmith. Frobisher is a want-to-be composer, aesthete and decadent, obsessed with his own skill but lacking the monies to see it flourish. Striking up a cunning plan that would make Baldrick proud, Frobisher elects to install himself at the titular Zedelghem, the home of a now ailing composer who he deduces will be susceptible to a skilled aide.

Which is completely different to, for example, its successor, book three, which is a pulp fiction detective story about an investigative journalist taking on a large corporation. Despite the fact that each book covers less than one hundred pages in total, each is well-rounded with a great sense of character and an established narrative that, come the rejoining point, Mitchell is under pressure to conclude satisfactorily. However, manage this feat he does and each tale concludes in a generally satisfactory but none-the-less fatalistic way.

Despite the quality of each, as pointed out at the start, readers will have periods where their attention may waver. It's a brave decision, for example, for Mitchell to start somewhere in the 1800s - archaic prose and all, and some will find book one difficult going. By turns, and proving an excellent way to illustrate the differing narratives, the middle book six is set in a post-apocalyptic future, on an island presumably not too far away from the opening locale of book one. It's own language is straight out of Burgess' A Clockwork Orange and the feeling of disassociation upon starting to read it is also reminiscent of that book. In the end though, book six is probably one of Cloud Atlas' finer moments of invention and storytelling and perfect middle-point before you open book five again and rejoin some old friends.

Although the above may perhaps sound confusing, Mitchell never lets his reader wander and does a great job of making his stories memorable enough that when we come back to them we never feel lost. There are two awards on its front cover; one to say it was Booker nominated and one to say it won the Richard & Judy Best Read of The Year Award. Far from putting off both summer readers and sniffy book critics, this should be taken as an endorsement from both because Cloud Atlas' six stories are both highly readable and award worthy. Potentially a modern classic.

Film Prospects

Some of the books are definitely highly filmable (book five, for example, set in a neo-noir futuristic Korea and, although based on an interview structure, ripe for action set pieces) while others would need to be changed and adapted (very little movement happens in book one). It is reported both here and seemingly confirmed by IMDb that the Wachowski brothers are working on the screen version from a script by Tom Tykwer.

My reaction to this is two-fold; firstly, the Wachowskis can be brilliant and visually interesting but also dire and metaphor laden. The book is full of suggestions of links between the stories and these will have to be handled carefully and tactfully if they are to be the first rather the second of those descriptions. Secondly, to make a film audience interested and invested in all the different characters on show here the film would have to be mammoth. I can't see any way it would be possible to adapt it with less than half an hour per story meaning, in all likelihood, at least one story will be dropped or the film will be split into two, a move which is sure to anger some people when they find out their favourite tale hasn't made the cut.

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