Wow! Probably one of the more complex narrative styles I've ever read. David Mitchell has managed to weave six unique stories into something larger. Instead though, of telling the stories sequentially or interlacing them chapter by chapter, the stories are told concentrically. As the reader, you recurse in through the first half of each story, then back out through the second halves of each story in the reverse order. Amusingly, each of the stories in the first half link back to the previous story in some way – a found book, letters, a manuscript, a movie and a recording – and in the second half, this connection becomes even stronger, as each story depends on the same item in order to begin. As they go, the stories repeat the themes of oppression and power over others being held by individuals – con-men, heroes and lovers – companies, systems and states; each time trying to approach the ideas from a different angle.
Each story is told in a unique style, a unique point in history, a unique narrative language. From the journal of Adam Ewing in 1850; the letters of Robert Frobisher in 1931; the manuscript of Louisa Rey's investigation in 1975; the memoirs (and later screenplay and movie) of Timothy Cavendish's ghastly ordeal in, presumably, 2004; the futuristic recording device of Somni-451's interview 100 years in the future; and finally Zachry's narrative from a post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Over the top of the structural dependencies that Mitchell has built in, he introduces a number of recurring themes – for example the comet shaped birthmark that one person in each story seems to bear, the Cloud Atlas Sextet
, the piece of music that Robert Frobisher composes in the second story and which is also an obvious metaphor for the whole novel, the ship from the first story reappearing in the third story, etc. If the amount of notes that I took reading this novel are anything to go by, Mitchell's research and cross-referencing must have been astounding.
Complex though it is, once you get over the awkward writing styles of the Adam Ewing and the Sloosha's Crossing sections, the novel's complexity didn't actually require as much concentration and 'just turning back to check what such-n-such was again' as I'd feared. The more I read, the more engrossed I became in the worlds building that Mitchell was attempting to do. It's all very clever, perhaps too clever at times, and I worried that I was enjoying the complexity itself rather than the novel at times. However, there were a number of annoyances which stopped this being a five-star novel. Sometimes the metaphors became more of a club than a metaphor as the point was rammed home without any subtlety – the awfully overdone ending as Adam Ewing tries to end his journal with a discourse on humanity; the seemingly out of character notes on past, present and future, penned by Isaac just before his flight; the tediously unsubtle deja-vu moments, as when Louisa Rey pauses by the Prophetess ship from the first story. Please, I got that these stories are all linked together, they're published in the same book by the same author as a single novel. I didn't need to be continually reminded.
I didn't find the idea that the Louise Rey story was a fiction too worrying (as some other reviewers have). Although, they are right to question if that one wasn't 'true' were the two before? It seemed that Isaac's notes about the past and the imagined past were an attempt to explain that. I'm not sure it worked, maybe part of that trying to be too clever thing, though it didn't annoy me. Ultimately, I didn't really think it mattered. I did enjoy the names of the two Prescients in the Sloosha's Crossing story – Meronym and Duophysite. Meronym, the almost fungible researcher for the Prescients, is something that is part of something larger. And Duophysite, the presumed leader, is pretty much the same as dyophysite, which is the term for the duality of Christ. Again, they amused me once I'd looked them up, but I'm not convinced that they really worked. Maybe it is okay to like the book more for it's cleverness.