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July 07, 2006
David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is, like his previous novel number9dream a complicated affair. There's several different narratives which all pile into each other at various points, with varying levels of success. The story begins in a confusing world of pirates and natives (not the most accessible start ever imagined), before taking turns into Belgium, California, England, South America, futuristic Asia, and then back again.
The most successful of these is probably the diary of Robert Frobisher, an English composer who goes to Belgium to meet his musical idol, and also to scrounge for a while. The tale is mischievous, yet sinister, and although his love–life is easy to predict in advance, it's the most engaging of the six narratives described. The story of the Englishman who is accidentally imprisoned in a nursing home is brilliantly comical and has elements of Last of the Summer Wine in its farcical nature. The futuristic chapters are also well-written, and most similar in nature to number9dream.
Less successful is the supposed "crime thriller" set on the West Coast of America, a genre which would have been best left to Patricia Cornwell. The villains are obvious from the moment they're introduced and the set–pieces are far from unique.
The awards acclaim for this book almost certainly derives in large part from the author's ease with different narratives within one book, although at times the chain between each story seems tenuous. There are few common themes, although many issues are addressed individually in the book, such as democracy, capitalism, freedom of information and artificial intelligence.
Mitchell's writing style is also fluent despite the regular changes in context and culture. That said, the central chapter of the book is too tiresome to translate into English, and the first/last chapter would be best placed elsewhere in the book, as they provide little in the way of a book–end.
Cloud Atlas is certainly proficient, although at times is hard to read and not recommended for the unambitious. If your last read was by Dan Brown, don't be fooled by the attractive artwork: this book isn't for you. If, on the other hand, you want a book to challenge you, then this is as good a candidate as any.