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Where do I begin with this review? To say I loved the book doesn’t do justice to the amazing job David Mitchell has done within its pages. I enjoyed this so much it has knocked my previous favourite, John Irving’s A Prayer For Owen Meaney, into a cocked hat.
Mitchell starts – and ends – his epic tale with The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, a notary who upon completing some business for his employer in Sydney, is on his way back to his wife and child in SanFrancisco. “Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints.” From this opening line Mitchell follows these footprints not only through the sand to introduce the character of Dr Goose, but through the centuries to the present and far beyond in his exploration of how we are connected through time.
From the South Pacific we journey on to Belgium between the wars where a louche musician and composer, Robert Frobisher, tells his story through missives, Letters from Zedelghem, to his old friend, Sixsmith, and where we find the journal of Mr Ewing on the bookshelves, sadly torn in two and one half missing.
The next story the author introduces in Half Lives – The First Luisa Rey Mystery, is that of the eponymous American journalist Luisa Rey, who is investigating the corruption at the heart of a nuclear power expansion plan and trying to publish the worrying report written by a scientist at the base – one Rufus Sixsmith. The title suggests that this segment is written as a regular generic mystery tale and it is, in fact, the only story not to be told in the first person.
The manuscript of this story is sent to low-rent publisher Timothy Cavendish, who’s Ghastly Ordeal with gangsters and a brother who has had more than enough of Timothy’s troubles makes up the fourth segment of the book.
In An Orison of Sonmi~451 we are catapulted into a future where corporations have taken over from religion and government, and genetically modified cloned humans fulfil the menial tasks of society. The Orison in question is the recorded testimony of Sonmi~451, a server for Papa Song (McDonald’s ?) who was modified to be more than just another drone by activists for the anti-capitalist cause and is to be executed for her humanity. Her link to Timothy Cavendish is that she watched a movie of his life on one of her few nights of freedom.
The final story is that of Zachry, an old man relating tales of his life in Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After. Set decades, maybe even centuries, after the previous story, Sonmi has become a God and her Orison, her recorded testimony, has survived the fall; less an apocalyptic event than a gradual shrinking of the population when the planet was no longer capable of sustaining the people who exploited it so remorselessly. Little technology has survived outside that used by the visitors, a small group of people who seem to travel the globe, trading with the more primitive people they find.
Each story is split in two with the exception of Sloosh’a Crossin’, with half coming before Zachry’s tale and half after, like waves rolling up onto the shore and then gently lapping away. Mitchell describes this far better in his own words in the final Letters from Zedelghem segment.
“Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a ‘sextet for overlapping soloists’: piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe and violin, each in its own language of key, scale and colour. In the 1st set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the 2nd, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished, and by then it’ll be too late, but it’s the 1st thing I think of when I wake, and the last thing I think of before I fall asleep…”
Mr Mitchell has nothing to worry about. He has achieved a magnificent feat of storytelling using the most wonderful and varied language I have read in a very long time. I read each segment captivated and in awe of the structure and words: the overall ‘shape’ of the book is reflected in each segment, there are metaphors – the comet-shaped birthmark, the conflict between man and his surroundings – repeated and linking the six lives in such a wonderful way…
What this does have in common with Owen Meaney is the author’s skill in drawing together all the disparate threads of, at first, unrelated story threads into a coherent conclusion that shows he knew, and was entirely in control of, what he was doing on every page. I can only doff my cap to each of these talented writers.
When I read the closing line, “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”, I did cry a little. I always cry when something has touched me in such a profound way as Cloud Atlas. I have spent some time during every day since I started reading the book thinking about what I read the previous day and pondering on all its implications.
In the words of Nigel Tufnal, David Mitchell has cranked it up to eleven.