Anne Zouroudi is the author of The Mysteries of the Greek Detective - a series set in modern Greece, with a twist of ancient mythology. Her work has received national acclaim and she has been shortlisted for ITV3's Crime Thriller Awards, the Desmond Elliott Prize for sparkling new fiction and the East Midlands Book Awards. Her latest novel, The Bull of Mithros, will be published by Bloomsbury in June. In this post Anne discusses David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas.
Anne Zouroudi on Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
I read Cloud Atlas because it was a book everyone was reading, a book that was being hyped, and because I was intrigued by the title, which made no sense to me. I came to the book cold, in the days (less than 10 years ago) when Amazon's reviewing public had little influence on my reading choices. In fact I had read no reviews of the novel at all, but it was on the Booker list, and so I was prepared to believe - more so than I would be now - that it was a work of significant merit.
I began to read, and entered the world of Adam Ewing as he discovered the dangers of the Pacific islands in the 19th century. In the opening paragraphs, Ewing finds Dr Henry Goose searching a beach for human molars - the detritus of cannibal banquets - to be made into dentures for the nobility. This bizarre scene, and those following, were masterfully crafted, evoking Ewing's time and place in glowing technicolour.
'My bruises, cuts, muscles & extremities groaned like a court-room of malcontent litigants,' he complained. 'As in a dream... a pellucid salamander emerged from its carrion dwelling and darted along the stick to my hand.'
I was pleased with Adam Ewing's company, so when his narrative came to an abrupt, mid-sentence end, I was both baffled and disappointed. I checked the page numbers to see if I had pages missing; but all seemed to be in order, so I assumed a printer's error, and read on.
The scene changed, to the 1930s, and a new narrator - the less-than-likeable Robert Frobisher, a talented musician who blagged his way into the household of an ageing composer. His story, told in letters to his old friend Sixsmith, was as intriguing as Adam Ewing's; but lo, before the story reached any kind of resolution, it, too, came to an abrupt end.
This time, I smiled; I was beginning to get the idea, and to glean the subtleties behind it. The two narratives were not as unrelated as they initially appeared; when Frobisher found part of Adam Ewing's Pacific diary in a library, the first connection was made.
And yet I still had no idea what a magnificent idea was at hand. I read on, moving into the 1970s, and a tale involving the disappearance of nuclear scientist Rufus Sixsmith, recipient of Robert Frobisher's letters. Another halt, another fast-forward in time, to 1980s Hull, and the fate of poor Timothy Cavendish, a vanity publisher who received papers relating to Sixsmith, but was then incarcerated in an old peoples' home; thence to an interview with Somni-451, a slave-clone in a believable but soulless future, who recalled watching an old film entitled The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish. Apocalypse next: and on the book went, into the post-cataclysmic future, where Zachry gave an account of 'contemporary' life in the Pacific islands where Adam Ewing had once lived, and where Somni-451 had somehow become the islanders' deity.
Here, a reversal began, a back-tracking through all these timescapes, resolving each narrator's tale in turn - Somni's, Cavendish's, Sixsmith's, Frobisher's, and concluding where all had begun, with Adam Ewing.
When I read Cloud Atlas, I was in a happy place in my literary career, with my first publishing contract recently signed, and The Messenger of Athens soon to make its appearance on the bookshop shelves. I had worked hard, honing my craft for many years to reach that position. But the reading of Mitchell's novel seemed to point up the flaws in my achievement. I found his writing bold, and regretted I had not myself been bolder; his stories were spellbinding, and I read passages aloud to my twelve-year-old, who was spellbound too. I marvelled at Mitchell's ability to create all these diverse worlds, and create every one of them wholly convincingly, where I had sweated to bring life to only one.
And I wondered at the brilliance of the book's structure. I have often seen it described - now I have read the reviews - as a Russian doll, plots nesting one inside another. My analysis is slightly different: to me, the book's structure is a pyramid of time, its apex out there in Zachry's futuristic primitivism, its base the same islands but in Adam Ewing's time, centuries before.
I have never, before or since, been so 'blown away' by a book as I was by Cloud Atlas. I read Mitchell's earlier novels, and found Cloud Atlas's roots, a (for me) less successful shot at the moon, in Ghostwritten. More than anything, I wished I could write anything half as good, and it has remained ever after in the back of my mind as a gold standard – a guidepost to what I might achieve if I let my imagination really fly.
I evangelize about Cloud Atlas, every chance I get. Yet to my constant surprise, my evangelizing brings mixed reactions, and I concluded several years ago that Cloud Atlas is very much a 'Marmite' book. Some people share my views, and marvel at the novel's magnificence; more commonly, though, the reaction is, 'I don't get it.'
I don't get how other readers don't get it, but their antipathy is clear. It's just too confusing, they say. And it is confusing, at the outset; but as one reads, one must seek out the silver threads of order and connection.
For certain, Cloud Atlas is no run-of-the-mill novel. It's challenging, but it more than repays the effort of careful reading. If you've never read it, I urge you to do so. Especially if Marmite is to your taste.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]