July was mostly taken up with reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. There may be a few spoilers for that book ahead, as well as a look at Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and William Ryan’s Soviet crime novel, The Holy Thief…
Long before The Simpsons began its inexorable decline, there was a memorable scene where Homer watches David Lynch’s seminal odd-fest Twin Peaks (“That’s some damn fine coffee you got in Twin Peaks, and damn good cherry pie”). Homer sits on the sofa, agog and absorbed, before exclaiming; “Brilliant! I have absolutely no idea what’s going on.”
That’s exactly how I felt while reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Recently made into a film starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry (I would love to know how they got all this into two hours), the book has received praise left, right and centre. However, while I found it engrossing, it was also very hard work and, dare I say it, maybe a bit too clever for its own good.
There are six interconnected stories, ranging from the 19th century to the post-apocalyptic future. These are written in a number of different forms (diary entry, epistolary, third person narrative, first person narrative and interview form) and tell the stories of people who seems worlds apart, but who have had a bearing, no matter how slight, on each other. Five of the stories are split into two parts; the only one not to be is ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After’, which composes the central part of the book. After this, the book finishes the other character’s tales in reverse chronological order, and the book ends with ‘The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing’.
Mitchell plays with notions of meta-fiction and style. We finish one story only to learn that the next character considers it a work of fiction; yet all six main characters share the same comet birthmark.
So, these six people. The book begins with Adam Ewing, a naïf and good-hearted American voyaging from New Zealand to America in the nineteenth century. Ewing seems to have found himself on a ship of rogues and blackguards, where the only other decent person is the Moriori stowaway Autua. Most deadly of all is the ship’s doctor, who diagnoses Ewing with a strange ‘Parasite’ which seems too fantastical to be believed.
Our next character, bisexual composer Robert Frobisher, has found half of Ewing’s journal in the library of the grand Belgian country house he is staying in. In his letters to his friend and former lover, Rufus Sixsmith, he details how he has ended up in Bruges (yes, yes I know, effing Bruges). He has been disowned by his wealthy parents back in England and has offered his services to English expat composer Vyvyan Ayrs, who has gone blind. Frobisher begins an affair with Ayrs’ wife, Jocasta, and finds himself clashing with his employer, who has begun to lift his ideas.
Many years later, Rufus Sixsmith, a nuclear engineer, meets reporter Luisa Rey in a stuck lift and tells her how the local power plant is unsafe. Luisa begins to chase for answers, endangering herself and Sixsmith.
It’s revealed next that ‘Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery’ is a novel submitted to elderly British publisher Timothy Cavendish, who is on the run from an irate author demanding royalties, and finds himself imprisoned in a nursing home.
Korea, or to give it its new futuristic name, Nea So Copros, is the setting for an ‘An Orison of Sonmi~451’. Sonmi~451 is a fabricant, or clone, designed to work in a fast-food outlet. The nation state is gone, to be replaced by a totalitarian corporate regime. Fabricants are the lowest of the low, and have been chemically altered so not to reach the same level of consciousness as ‘purebloods’. She tells her story to an archivist; how she gained self-awareness and was sneaked out to be researched on at a university. The only time Sonmi felt happiness, she tells us, is when she saw a film called ‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish’.
Finally, in a far-off Hawaiian future, Zachry tells us his story. Something calamitous happened to humanity; people are deformed and have regressed to primitive ways. Here, Sonmi is a goddess. We hear of how a Prescient, a more technologically advanced mainlander, visits and changes Zachry’s life and outlook.
In any book like this, some stories will appeal more than others. I personally found the Adam Ewing, Zachry, and Luisa Rey chapters hard-going. The first two have challenges of language; but in the case of Zachry it is worth sticking with; the shock I got when I realised he was from the future and not the past was unparalleled. Luisa Rey fell flat for me; perhaps Mitchell aped the style of a third-rate thriller too well.
However, I could have read a whole book about Sonmi, so fascinating was her dystopian world. Cavendish and Frobisher both share a wonderfully bitter and cynical tone. The Cavendish chapters provide some much needed comic relief, and I’d have been happy if his feel-good ending rounded off the book.
Mitchell’s ultimate message of power destroying mankind and the legacy of our actions is neither as new nor revolutionary as I suspect he thinks it is. There is a declamation on the dangers of power in seemingly every chapter, and I really grew to resent being banged on the head with it. However, while I’m not sure Cloud Atlas reaches its ultimate goal, it’s still a hell of a journey.
Another crazy journey is that of Harold Fry, the star of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce. Harold, an elderly Devon man in a loveless marriage, receives a letter from his old colleague, Queenie Hennessy. Queenie is in a hospice in Berwick-on-Tweed, one of the last towns in England before the Scottish border. Harold writes her a letter, and decides to post it. However, once he gets to the postbox, he keeps going. So begins Harold’s odyssey across England on foot.
Along the way we learn about Harold’s past, why he and his wife Maureen don’t talk and why Queenie is so important. Harold’s journey changes not only his life but the lives of his wife, his bereaved neighbour Rex, and assorted characters he meets along the way. We learn that Queenie herself is waiting for Harold’s arrival; maybe he can even save her life?
Soon Harold’s journey becomes a media sensation, and although he feels ungrateful, he is soon wishing for peace and quiet. Meanwhile, his wife Maureen, sick with worry, comes to a decision to forgive Harold for the past, and goes through her own transformation too.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a beautiful book about letting go and making amends. Joyce writes with a light, cinematic touch, befitting her previous life as a screen and radio writer. Harold is a quiet, unassuming man, who must overcome his natural shyness and diffidence to get to Queenie. Despite touching on dark themes, the book is never depressing. The bittersweet ending is beautiful and will bring a tear to one or two eyes. Highly recommended.
Limerick-born writer William Ryan recently launched his third novel, The Twelfth Department, starring his Soviet detective, Captain Alexei Korolev. Investigating a murder is difficult enough at the best of times, but for Korolev and his colleagues, the creeping paranoia of Stalin’s Russia makes the task twice as difficult.
In Ryan’s debut, The Holy Thief, a woman has been found mutilated and murdered in a deconsecrated church and the Moscow militia (the ordinary police) are sent to investigate. However, what they find leads them uncomfortably close to their superiors in the NKVD, the bureau charged with enforcing Stalinism.
Life in 1930s Moscow is hard for many of us to imagine. However, William Ryan evidently has done his homework and captures the oppressive atmosphere of life under communism brilliantly. Korolev himself is an interesting character. He still, despite the official state requirement for atheism, believes in God and often makes the sign of the cross in his pocket. He takes for granted that life is worse in capitalist countries, but then observes the mounting numbers of suicides and starving people in Moscow.
The book really hammers home how pervasive communism was; how much life and death was dominated by ideology. Even funerals are not immune, with the deceased being eulogised for their socialism and commitment to the USSR. Whether it is the author’s intention or not, it also emphasises the spectacular failure of communism to provide a better life for people.
It’s a fascinating look at a lost time (the meaning of Russian criminal tattoos especially intrigued me) but that would mean nothing without a good story. There’s no need to worry as Ryan constructs a fast-paced mystery with sympathetic and realistic characters. I will definitely be seeking out the rest of the Korolev novels.