Mitchell again. Having taken the plunge with the lesser-known The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, I thought I’d better read the one that my favourite Professor saw fit to have on her shelves. Cloud Atlas is in many ways a more ambitious novel than The Thousand Autumns… and it seems to be the novel that ‘made’ David Mitchell; shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2004.
I don’t want to say too much about it.
It’s roughly five stories going full tilt the whole way through. No mean feat. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel that pulls off this fragmented and contrived style with such grace, seamlessness and panache. From the not-too-distant past to the not-too-distant future, we encounter diary entries, interviews, first-person accounts, third-person narration and love-letters. We travel through time through the beguilingly simple medium of individual narratives. Lives interweave occasionally, science fiction rears its head just visibly. The future episodes in particular are very well considered. Pollution, rampant consumerism, the failure of democracy and huge disparities in wealth, health and opportunities are big themes dealt with a light but powerful touch. Cloud Atlas shows us a plausible world gradually and irredeemably made toxic by the many and various permutations of man’s will to power.
Very, very readable.
A collection of short stories by a writer I know nothing about. I picked this off the shelf in the bookshop in Siam Paragon on the strength of the title alone (and its size – I was looking for beach reading). It made for strange beach reading, but that’s not to say unenjoyable.
All of these stories are set in non-specific suburban America, and I think deliberately made to read as if the location is unimportant or interchangeable. There is an anonymity, and flatness to these places. The people too are strangely featureless, except for their demons, neuroses, traumas, fixations, perversions, addictions… it’s not a happy bunch of folk. Often darkly funny. A damning portrait of the ‘American dream’. I particularly enjoyed the final story in the series ‘A Real Doll’ about a young boy playing covetously with his sister’s (despised and abused) Barbie. Imaginative and perverse. I would like to read more A.M. Homes, perhaps starting with the reassuringly titled “This Book Will Save Your Life”.
Another long novel. But this review, along with the two that follow, will be brief.
All this reading has taken place amidst quite large changes: the end of the teaching year, moving house; endings and beginnings that always seem to feature packing bags and assessment of the weight of belongings. I will be mired in textbooks very soon, so I have been making the most of the time I have left for fiction. I may have to leave some books behind when I leave Bangkok, and this has given me pause for thought. What could I jettison instead?
I’d never read anything by David Mitchell before this. I’d seen someone reading The Thousand Autumns… on the tube once, and also remembered seeing Cloud Atlas on the shelves of one of my English Professors at University. So far, so vague. It’s another weighty tome. I picked it up in a second-hand bookshop in Kanchanaburi, and carried it around sweatily and regretfully for the rest of the day. But on a breezy balcony, I forgave it. It fully justifies its heft by its depth and intelligence. The plot starts at a slow amble – easing you deftly into the history (the Dutch East Indies Company), the culture (Japan in the late 1700s) and the characters that will populate the scenery for the next 500 or so pages – building pretty rapidly into a gallop that doesn’t ease off until you put it down. But don’t assume the pace compensates for poor craftsmanship. This is very impressive, well-researched, gripping and multi-layered storytelling.
A historical novel with elements of the magical. A seafaring novel played out mainly on land. ‘Beautiful’ is not a word that I like to use often, but it applies here. As with all great novels, it felt like it ended much too soon.