Book choice for August

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell [suggested by Ben Monk]

front cover

It's hard not to become ensnared by words beginning with the letter B, when attempting to describe Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell's third novel.  It's a big book, for a start, bold in scope and execution - a bravura literary performance, possibly.  (Let's steer clear of breathtaking for now.) Then, of course, Mitchell was among Granta's Best of Young British Novelists and his second novel number9dream was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  Characters with birthmarks in the shape of comets are a motif; as are boats.  Oh and one of the six narratives strands of the book - where coincidentally Robert Frobisher, a young composer, dreams up "a sextet for overlapping soloists" entitled Cloud Atlas - is set in Belgium, not far from Bruges.  (See what I mean?)

Structured rather akin to a Chinese puzzle or a set of Matrioshka dolls, there are dazzling shifts in genre and voice and the stories leak into each other with incidents and people being passed on like batons in a relay race.  The 19th-century journals of an American notary in the Pacific that open the novel are subsequently unearthed 80 years later on by Frobisher in the library of the ageing, syphilitic maestro he's trying to fleece.  Frobisher's waspish letters to his old Cambridge crony, Rufus Sexsmith, in turn surface when Rufus, (by the 1970s a leading nuclear scientist) is murdered.  A novelistic account of the journalist Luisa Rey's investigation into Rufus' death finds its way to Timothy Cavendish, a London vanity publisher with an author who has an ingenious method of silencing a snide reviewer.  And in a near-dystopian Blade Runner-esque future, a genetically engineered fast food waitress sees a movie based on Cavendish's unfortunate internment in a Hull retirement home.  (Cavendish himself wonders how a director called Lars might wish to tackle his plight).  All this is less tricky than it sounds, only the lone "Zachary" chapter, told in Pacific Islander dialect (all "dingos'n'ravens", "brekker" and "f'llowin'"s) is an exercise in style too far.  Not all the threads quite connect but nonetheless Mitchell binds them into a quite spellbinding rumination on human nature, power, oppression, race, colonialism and consumerism.  

(Review by Travis Elborough from amazon.co.uk)

Born in Southport in 1969, David Mitchell grew up in Malvern, Worcestershire, studying for a degree in English and American Literature followed by an MA in Comparative Literature, at the University of Kent.  He lived for a year in Sicily before moving to Hiroshima, Japan, where he taught English to technical students for eight years, before returning to England.

In his first novel, Ghostwritten (1999), nine narrators in nine locations across the globe tell interlocking stories.  This novel won the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award.

His second novel, number9dream (2001), was shortlisted for the 2002 Man Booker Prize for fiction.  It is set in modern day Tokyo and tells the story of Eiji Miyake's search for his father.

In 2003 David Mitchell was named by Granta magazine as one of twenty 'Best of Young British Novelists'.  In his third novel, Cloud Atlas (2004), a young Pacific islander witnesses the nightfall of science and civilisation, while questions of history are explored in a series of seemingly disconnected narratives.  Cloud Atlas was shortlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

David Mitchell lives in Ireland.  His latest novel is Black Swan Green (2006).  (Continue reading Mitchell's Bibliography, Awards and Critical Perspective on contemporarywriters.com, or see his entry on Wikipedia)

 

Shortlisted for this month

Wide Sargasso Sea [suggested by Jodie Shard]

Wide Sargasso Sea

Synopsis

Jean Rhys's late, literary masterpiece Wide Sargasso Sea was inspired by the "mad wife in the attic" of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, and is set in the lush, beguiling landscape of Jamaica in the 1830s.  Antoinette Cosway is a Creole heiress - product of an inbred, decadent, expatriate community - a sensitive girl at once beguiled and repelled by the lush Jamaican landscape.  She meets Rochester: a young Englishman who is drawn to her innocent sensuality and beauty.  After their marriage the rumours of madness in the Cosway family begin, poisoning her husband against her.  Caught between his demands and her own precarious sense of belonging, Antoinette is truly driven towards madness.

About the Author

Jean Rhys was born Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams in the British colony of Dominica in the West Indies on 24 August 1890, the fourth surviving child of her parents.  After the emancipation of the slaves (1834) the Geneva estate entered a genteel decline, evocatively recreated in Jean Rhys's best-known novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, which was only completed and published when she was 76.  Although Rhys left Dominica in 1907 to attend school in England, returning only once, briefly, in 1936, the island remained an important reference point for her life and work.  After the success of Wide Sargasso Sea she spent several years drafting an autobiographical memoir, Smile Please, which was published posthumously, having been incomplete at the time of her death. (Continue reading this autobiographical note from The Literary Encyclopedia, or see her entry on Wikipedia)

Neuromancer [suggested by John Beresford]

Neuromancer

Synopsis

Neuromancer is the most famous early cyberpunk novel and won the so-called science-fiction "triple crown" (the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award, and the Hugo Award) after being published in 1984.  It was Gibson's first novel and the start of the The Sprawl trilogy.  Set amidst the cities of a future world that many readers see as dystopian and find chillingly plausible, Neuromancer tells the story of Case, an out-of-work computer hacker hired by an unknown patron to participate in a seemingly-impossible crime.  The novel examines the concepts of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, genetic engineering, multinational corporations overpowering the traditional nation-state and cyberspace (a computer network called the matrix) long before these ideas were fashionable in popular culture.  Gibson also explores the dehumanizing effects of a world dominated by ubiquitous and cheap technology, writing of a future where violence and the free market are the only things upon which one may rely, and in which the dystopian elements of society are counterbalanced by an energy and diversity that is perversely attractive (and provides some of the book's appeal).

Read the rest of the massive Wikipedia entry on Neuromancer.

About the Author

There doesn't seem to be a handy-dandy pocket sized synopsis of the life of William Gibson anywhere, possibly because people have read this rather rambling version on his personal website and decided they couldn't do any better.  Who am I to argue?  There is of course the ubiquitous Wikipedia entry.

Previous Months' Book Choices

July 2006
June 2006
May 2006