London, Sceptre (Flipbacks), 2011, 854p
Flipbacks are my new favourite thing. For those who don't want to lug around a hefty novel whilst travelling, but don't want to succumb to the new technological era, these small, lightweight publications are a perfect alternative. Who would have thought I could carry Cloud Atlas in my pocket!?
Cloud Atlas is a tome of genius and creativity - an 800 page novel narrating six different interlocking lives, across many centuries. With each story, the style, tone and pace changes, keeping the reader on their toes. The stories are split, so the narrative is disjointed and, sometimes, I struggled to remember the smaller details, especially as I have been reading it over a long period of time.
But I love the unique nature of each of the lives - it is incredible that Mitchell is so flexible and creative, offering such variety whilst maintaining a narrative flow. For example, the first story is written in the form of a diary, as Adam Erving tells of his adventures at sea; then it is the correspondence of a young composer, Robert Frobisher, writing to his friend Sixsmith whilst lodging in Bruges (my personal favourite). There are movie scripts and interviews, as well as a section that is written like spoken word - as Zachry tells his story to a listening crowd. In the first few pages of each section, you have to take a moment to readjust, but soon you begin to drown in the language and imagery, and most significantly, the characters.
Throughout, the characters are linked by memory, mythology, and a comet-shaped birthmark. Frobisher tells Sixmith that he is reading the diary of Erving; and later, Luisa Rey seeks out Frobisher's Cloud Atlas Sextet, after meeting Sixmith and embroiling herself in a dangerous mystery. Elsewhere, Somni 451 (a clone, who draws suspicion for being more intelligent than she was manufactured to be) becomes a deity in the distant future, after the Fall of civilisation. In this way, each character keeps the memory of the previous character alive.
The overarching theme of greed and power, leading to destruction, subtly seeps into the reader's subconscious. Unfortunately, I felt the novel lacked the big ending I felt it deserved. But each narrative highlights the evil of greed, and the consequences of power structures - from the feminist undertones in Luisa Rey's story, to overt slavery, both in Erving's historical narrative about colonisation and Somni 451's experience as a clone in the future. In the distant future is a dystopia in which man has reverted to an ancient state, living like cavemen, due to the internal combustion of the greedy civilised world.
I cannot recommend this book enough, both in terms of it's originality and literary beauty. It's length might seem put some people off, but it is definitely worth it to escape into these incredible worlds and fascinating lives. And with Flipbacks, you don't even have to carry around a huge copy!
(I should really be getting paid to say these things.)