Adam Ewing is a naïve
19th Century American who travels across the Pacific Ocean upon a ship named
"The Prophetess"; an apt title for a human stage which sets the scene for
the book. Ewing is initially exposed to stories of brutality and
tyranny through the Pacific Islands, and then finds himself to be
encompassed by the same level of tyranny and lawlessness aboard the ship.
He falls victim to a corrupt doctor, narrowly escaping with his life (David
Mitchell presumably had the mass-murderer Dr Harold Shipman in mind when he
wrote this). The account is gritty and realistic, exposing the
weakness and brutality of humanity, and how their trapped victims fall prey
Pre-war Belgium is the setting for the
second journal, taking the form of a series of letters from a talented but
vainglorious young composer, Robert Frobisher. His immoral and
hedonistic urgings are hidden behind a façade of culture and learning.
His initially fraudulent attempts to work with a distinguished but invalid
composer bear fruit, giving the hope that Frobisher might achieve some kind
of salvation through his art. However, he is let down by his pride,
lust and ambition, and ultimately realises that he has bitten off more than
he could chew, leading to ruin.
The third character is fictional, and is
set during a period of time that the fourth incarnation also lives through,
namely the 1970s. Yet, her links to the past and the future seem
stronger than the others, and she actually realises that she is the
reincarnation of Robert Frobisher through reading the letters he had sent to
his lover; a real-life character in the novel. Rey lives the part of
an adventurous and ambitious journalist trying to break open the secrecy
surrounding the safety issues of a nuclear reactor. She also finds
herself out of her depth, as various characters fall foul of the murderous
security officer. Yet, she wins through, indicating that the
reincarnated soul is gradually evolving towards greater things.
The fourth character is a vanity publisher
in the present day who ends up reading the novel about Luisa Rey.
Timothy Cavendish is a worldly-wise cynic whose cultured persona belie his
business failings. He accidentally strikes it lucky when a client of
his murders a book critic at a party, propelling the author into prison, and
the book to the top of the bestseller chart. However, Cavendish is
hunted down by the author's brothers and ends up taking refuge in a nursing
home which, it turns out, treats him as a demented patient and incarcerates
him within a regime as tyrannical as any other in the book. His wily
efforts to escape are entertaining, to say the least.
The fifth character is a
genetically-modified human clone named Sonmi-451. She works for a
Korean fast-food corporation set in the future. Essentially, she and
all of the other clones are treated as slaves by a powerful corporate system
which is manipulative and corrupt, even evil. Genetic engineering has
altered the boundaries of morality within society. As the story unfolds it
becomes clear that the world is fast disintegrating, and Sonmi-451 becomes a
pivotal pawn in a grand end-game. Her incarnation has acquired the
wisdom to keep her own counsel and trust no one, allowing her to inevitably
deal a killer blow to a corrupt system which is manipulating her for its own
Lastly, the sixth character appears in an
account given by a maverick Hawaiian islander during a future time following
the complete collapse of civilisation. Fledgling tribal societies
retain a myth of the civilisation that has fallen, and have become simple
and free. However, in a tragic parallel with the accounts of tribal
decimation in the first novella, the Valley peoples are brutally overcome
and subjugated by another island tribe. History has repeated itself,
but the reincarnated soul, in the form of a knowledgeable anthropologist
from a distant civilised remnant of the old times, manages to escape the
destruction to keep some hope alive that barbarism won't completely win the
The structure of 'Cloud Atlas' is unusual.
Each of the first five stories halts abruptly halfway through, reflecting the
partial knowledge attained about that incarnation by the next one. As the
novellas progress each incarnation finds the second half of the previous story,
allowing each story to be finished in reverse chronological order in the second
half of the book. Ingenious.
The evolution of the individual over a number
of lifetimes is counter-balanced by the disintegration of society towards
tyranny, totalitarianism and eventual anarchy. It is a pessimistic
worldview, reflecting our modern angst about where present-day society is
heading. The individual's life purpose is to overcome tyranny and
brutality, and thereby obtain wisdom and self-knowledge.
David Mitchell doesn't hold back in his
portrayal of human evil, which becomes the norm rather than the exception in his
work. His observations are sharp witted, often painful, and well read. An
immense amount of research has gone into the authorship of the book to provide
its rugged realism. I can't recommend it highly enough.