Six intertwined lives, spread out across time, and yet they are all linked through one common theme; mans' hunger for power and their ability to fight back against it. It can be as simple as an escape from a nursing home or as huge as the uncovering of a bloody conspiracy.
The book is split into eleven parts and goes chronologically until it reaches the far future, where it turns back on its-self to complete each of the stories. In terms of suspense and intrigue, this is a really good idea, especially when the author leaves their characters on a life-or-death cliffhanger, such as in The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing and Half-Lives. However, it does take some time to remember what has happened in the previous narratives when you arrive back at them further into the book. Some of them are even cut off in the middle of a sentence (such as Adam Ewing's Journal), which means you may have to turn back to the previous pages (all the way at the beginning of the book) to see the first part and makes sense of it.
Despite this issue, the book is a very good read (and so it should be; it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2004). Each storyline is meticulously thought out and researched, especially in the case of the Journal, where there is a fair amount about the resident tribes of the Chatham Islands (being somewhere around New Zealand and Australia). Each voice is extremely different, and there is no mistaking any of the characters for each-other. Perhaps the most different of all is Zachry, a Valleysman living in a post-apocalyptic earth, whose dialect is very difficult to read. For example; "All three of 'em cackled like a danglin' o' screechbats an' I redded diresome'n'steamin'." It takes a little bit of time for you to get used to this dialect, but as the whole story comes as one chapter, it is a little bit easier to take in than if it had been split apart.
I particularly liked reading An Orison of Sonmi~451 and Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After as I love the idea of what the world could be like years into the future. They paint pictures of world's that are quite different from our own, and yet we can see that they are fairly possible, given the right conditions.
Compared top the film though, the stories seemed to lack the direct links that were laid out. In the book, each main character is meant to be a reincarnation of the previous one, but in the film, there are several reincarnations of several characters, adding depth and interest to the story. Sonmi's Orison clearly explains the concept of souls crossing the ages in the film, where the book gives a few vague references with no solid points for comparison in all of the stories. I found that the film also added in a lot more action and got into the main point in the story a lot sooner. This is particularly evident in Sonmi's Orison, where she spends a lot of time on her own. The film cuts this part out entirely in favour of a more full-on narrative.
The book leaves it up to us to interpret how each story is linked, and some people may find this aggravating. The idea is much more about people and their will as opposed to the reincarnation idea that flows through the film. Cloud Atlas is a long and fairly difficult read, and it is not for everyone's taste, but please give it a go. It is sure to inspire you.
8 out of 10
PS: I saw this for £2.00 in my local charity shop, it was a bargain!