Book Review: Cloud Atlas

J. M. W. Turner

Summary: Souls crossing ages like clouds cross skies. And Robert Frobisher wins my heart.

Some book-to-movie adaptions work so well that you’ll flutter towards the source material. Others are not as fortunate but, if the story is good, some will pick up the book to see what it’s all about. For me, Cloud Atlas, the movie, was neither.

I watched it back in 2012, knowing it was based on a novel, and found the narrative so all over the place, while trying too hard to be deep and metaphysical, that I promptly assumed David Mitchell to be one of those pretentious authors who go on big stylistic exploits just to set themselves apart from the other peasants. After the 10 hours that the movie’s duration felt like, the last thing I wanted was to waste more time on the novel.

But life has a way of guiding us towards the books and writers that will best fit our spirit and, enters serendipity, by last Halloween, I was curling up with Slade House and having a blast, which lead to binge-watching interviews, which lead to me ordering Mitchell’s complete published works.

Due to our history, Cloud Atlas had to be the first to go.

Six novellas, written in six different literary genres, cut in half and sewed together like Russian dolls. They are all linked by a comet-shaped birthmark and a multitude of themes, such as slavery & oppression (in its many forms) and the interconnection of all things.

Laura MacMahon

Part 1 of Story #1 (Adam Ewig) and Story #6 (Zachary) have some steep linguistic hills to tread through, which can be painful at times. Ewig, because a Māori/Moriori history lesson in 19th century English on the first dozen pages will make you wonder if you wouldn’t be better off quitting the whole enterprise. Zachary, because it will make you struggle to get at ease with an array of post-apocalyptic neologisms before you can afford to pay attention to the story. Fun fact: the word “yarn” is also constant throughout the six eras.

Buddha be praised, Mitchell plays with the idea of reincarnation with the subtlety and elegance it deserves – as opposed to giving it a glitzy, new-age-y clothing. It’s not handled as something from a mystic or supernatural realm but, rather, as a natural evolutionary flow – but one of the spirit, as there is of the species.

And yes, there is a big stylistic exploit going on here, but it’s more adventurous than pompous, and beautifully achieved. There’s the Blade Runner/Soylent Green mashup, the 70’s thriller and the hilarious modern comedy. And then there’s Robert Frobisher.

With all the makings and melody of men I’d fall infatuated with too easily in my 20’s, Frobisher goes beyond synesthesia: old men snoring in a specific key, objects falling to a certain time signature. He translates all the humdrum sounds around him into music, because music is all there is for him – and into music he dissolves, like a H. Christian Andersen mermaid turning into foam. Out of all the six comets, he is the one that most jumps out of the page.

It’s a wonderful, make-notes-and-stick-post-its-while-reading novel – but if you haven’t seen the movie yet, just stick to the book.

Header image: Donati’s Comet, 1858 (W/C on Paper), by J. M. W. Turner

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