More than one person had warned me that David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas was a difficult read. But I had been given a copy by a reader I admire so I decided to tackle it. It was a roller coaster ride - parts were a little bumpy, parts were exhilarating - and I'm glad I hung on to the end.
The book's first section is a journal begun in 1849 by Adam Ewing, an American notary, as he travels by sea from New Zealand to Hawaii. But in the middle of the story (actually in mid-sentence) the story suddenly shifts to 1931 and “Letters from Zedelghem”, letters from aspiring composer Robert Frobisher, who has convinced a reclusive musical genius to take him on as an amanuensis in his remote Belgian chateau. When Frobisher isn't bedding the composer's wife, lusting after his daughter or stealing books from his library, he is working on his own composition – Cloud Atlas Sextet. This section seems to have no connection to the one that preceded it, until Frobisher discovers the torn first half of a book on the shelf of his room, and it's “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing”.
I'm sure my love of puzzles and problem solving helped keep me turning pages after that. The next four sections are once again about characters and time periods with no connection to the preceding ones, except there are little kernels – a birthmark, a manuscript, a movie title – which reference the previous section in an oblique way. The first five sections are written in different styles and each ends abruptly. The sixth - “Sloosha's Crossin' An' Ev'rythin' After” is as hard to read as the title suggests. It's a post-apocalyptic tale told in a sort of pidgin English by Zachry, a goatherd in Hawaii who describes life after the fall of civilization. Hawaii? Didn't the book start with a journey to Hawaii?
The book then pivots and works it way backwards. Each of the five stories begun in the first half is completed in the second, until, in the last section, we are back on the ship with Adam Ewing. Along the way Mitchell plants additional clever clues and references that make the book feel much more like an integrated whole than just a series of unrelated stories.
The composer Robert Frobisher described his Cloud Atlas Sextet as "overlapping soloists: piano, clarinet, cello, flute, oboe and violin, each in its own language of key, scale and colour. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order." That's a perfect description of this interesting book.