Top 10 Closing Lines in English Literature

Contains spoilers.  Obviously.

The closing lines of a book can end up defining it.  They can bring a sense of closure to the story, complete plot threads and character arcs, or leave the reader wanting more with a cliffhanger.  They’re much more significant in literary terms (as opposed to marketing) than the opening lines, which can often be drab, unmemorable and difficult to absorb due to the author’s lack of familiarity with the story – unless you’re Jane Austen, anyway.  It’s a difficult/impossible task to compile a list of all my favourite endings to books, especially since I can’t claim to have read a significant portion of English literature – let alone the established canon – but I’m going to attempt it anyway.  So here’s my top 10 list:


10. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (2009)

“But Gale is not one to keep secrets from me.  ‘Katniss, there is no District Twelve.”

These words form the colossal cliffhanger of Catching Fire, the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy.  Suzanne Collins excels at bringing characters from despair to hope, and at bringing everything crashing down once again.  At this stage of the novel Katniss has just been rescued from the death-match arena, surviving her second Hunger Games which were supposed to be a death sentence.  Furthermore, her actions in the arena proved to be the final spark which blazed into life a rebellion against the Capitol and the brutal dictator, President Snow.  Yet after this we learned that Peeta had been captured by the Capitol forces in their escape and then, finally, we’re given this final line that states Katniss’ home district is gone.  We know that the government has firebombed the coal-covered District 12 and that her mother and sister are safe, but this shocking final message with its brutal lack of detail hammers it home as the reader runs out of words.  We don’t know how many people survived – if any, nor the wider context of this attack.  This cliffhanger is highly effective and is a taste of things to come in the third and final novel, Mockingjay.


9. The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman (2000)

” ‘And then what?’ said her dæmon sleepily.  “Build what?” ‘The Republic of Heaven,’ said Lyra.”

This final line to my all-time favourite book, though not a literary masterpiece in itself like other lines in this list, remains a highly fitting conclusion to the His Dark Materials trilogy.  The central theme to the books is that humanity should not look to a deity, real or otherwise, for meaning and purpose, but find and build it within themselves.  The Republic of Heaven begins as an attempt to build a real society in contrast to the Kingdom of Heaven which ends in war between the two, but it becomes clear that such a project is doomed to fail as people cannot inhabit other worlds than their own in the long-term.  Earlier in the book Lyra is told by a ghost, “We must build the Republic of Heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere.”  At first she probably didn’t understand this, but her assertion at the end of the novel indicates she has embraced this philosophy. Knowing there is no conscious existence after death, nor hope of life in other worlds, Lyra has accepted after multiple sacrifices that she must live as fulfilling a life as possible in her own world during her own lifespan, bringing the thematic journey of the series to a satisfying conclusion.


8. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley (1931)

 “Slowly, very slowly, like two unhurried compass needles, the feet turned towards the right; north, north-east, east, south-east, south, south–south-west; then paused, and after a few seconds, turned as unhurriedly back towards the left.  South-south west, south-south east, east…”

This somewhat graphic description of John the Savage’s suicide brings Brave New World to a close.  These final lines are powerful because of the sheer brutality of their imagery, using the comparison of compass needles and an agonisingly long, drawn out list of directions to create a vivid image of his feet dangling from above.  This makes the ending far more effective, as his suicide had been built up to throughout the book as he struggled to adapt to this horrific new world he found himself in, and particularly after the confused and drug-induced events in the previous scene where he let down all his moral barriers, which could have made the ending seem predictable otherwise.


7. The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling (2012)

“Her family half carried Terri Weedon back down the royal-blue carpet, and the congregation averted its eyes.”

This closing line is important for several reasons.  Pagford’s divisions are laid bare between its wealthy residents and deprived families by the former’s collective act of looking away from the coffin of the woman who epitomised the latter, Terri Weedon.  The people of Pagford have made no success throughout the novel in understanding people in situations different from their own.  Their averted gaze symbolises the ignorance they held the family’s condition in, continuing to view their faults as self-imposed rather than the result of institutional, generational poverty.  For a novel which explores all aspects of human society, the good and the bad, this may seem surprisingly hopeless, though it’s important to remember the individual characters who have been redeemed throughout the novel.  This final line, then, confirms the novel’s message that although humans may see positive changes on an individual level over the course of the novel’s timespan, societal change is a much slower, messier process.


6. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald (1926)

   “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.  It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further… And one fine morning- So we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past.”

Fitzgerald’s lyrical writing flows from the page to summarise the novel’s themes, told by the narrator Nick Carraway.  These final paragraphs offer us two contrasting visions: the first of a temporary setback in reaching their dreams – the American Dream – and the second revelation that obsessively seeking your dreams, as was the case with Gatsby, merely drags you further into the past as you seek to recreate former glory.  Which is doomed to fail because, as Nick enlightened us earlier, “you can’t repeat the past.”  Furthermore, this is confirmation that the entire concept of the American Dream is a lie, or obsolete in this postwar world.  These final lines show us why The Great Gatsby remains hugely relevant for American society today.


5. The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)

“Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!”

The closing line of this wonderful short story completes the narrator’s mental breakdown  having been confined to a bedroom in solitary confinement so she can ‘rest’, a barbaric but oh-so Victorian way of treating depression.  We watch the narrator’s mental state unravel as she becomes obsessed by the patterned wallpaper in her room, fixating all her world’s meaning upon it, and begins ritually walking round the room stripping the paper off.  Her husband, upon viewing her, faints, but this does not deter her and she continues walking her path over him.  These closing lines show just how removed from reality she has become that she is unable to even contextualise her husband’s identity and wellbeing, so severe has her mistreatment been.


4. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell (2004)

“Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”

This last line of Adam Ewing’s diary brings this epic of a novel to a close.  By this point we’ve witnessed six different time periods, movements to abolishing slavery, multiple personal adventures, revolutions and even the end of civilisation itself.  In each of the six stories it is heavily implied that a major character is the reincarnation of another from a previous story.  Whether Mitchell means this literally or as a metaphor for the consistent nature of the human soul, be it habit of the strong to exploit the weak or the enduring power of love, this final line must summarise not just the entire book but also humanity in its entirety.


3. Animal Farm – George Orwell (1945)

“Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike.  No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs.  The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

This classic ending to Animal Farm completes the story’s circular plot of the farm being ruled by oppressive humans, the animals themselves in a brief period of freedom before being oppressed once again by the pigs.  Orwell masterfully shows the pigs gradually adopting more manlike manners by reneging on their laws outlawing alcohol and murder, among others, and then by the pigs entering the farmhouse and sleeping in human beds.  These closing lines bring this process to its natural conclusion where the pigs, to all intents and purposes, have become men.  As this is Orwell there is inevitably a political purpose, and here it is to show how the Communist leaders of the Soviet Union have become indistinguishable from the former Tsarist regime.  Never has there been a more successful allegory.


2. Ulysses – James Joyce (1922)

“and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Without a doubt the most unorthodox quote you’ll find on this list, the final lines of Ulysses (as opposed to the final sentence, which is over three thousand words long) brings some perhaps surprising order to this novel that so many people find unfathomable.  Throughout the day of Leopold Bloom, described in eye-watering levels of detail, he has been portrayed as a gentle and kind person, a protective father figure for Stephen, possessing moderate political views in opposition to xenophobic Irish nationalism and remarkable understanding towards his wife Molly, who has just begun an affair.  As a result of this he is frequently emasculated by characters throughout the book, particularly during chapter 15’s nightmare sequence in which he is literally turned into a woman.  His inadequacy as a hero is reinforced with the constant allusions to Homer’s Odysseus, proving himself to be the stark opposite of this bold, heroic figure.  And yet, in Molly’s final soliloquy, her lasts thoughts before falling asleep are of Bloom as she remembers the day he asked her to marry him.  We can finally recognise Bloom as the undoubted hero of the novel as he wins this ultimate victory against his rival for Molly – a victory not just for himself but for his values of tolerance.  It becomes clear that Bloom is indeed a hero, and perhaps precisely the one that Ireland needs.


1. Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell (1949)

“But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished.  He had won the victory over himself.  He loved Big Brother.”

Yes, Orwell again!  These famous lines represent The Party’s ultimate victory over Winston, providing one of the bleakest yet most powerful endings in English literature.  Throughout the novel Winston has opposed The Party and Big Brother, expressing his hatred of them both multiple times throughout.  And yet Orwell shows that even the deepest convictions can be uprooted by force, in Winston’s case through systematic torture and the horrors of Room 101.  The final sentence, deliberately basic in its construction, is an affirmation of Winston’s conversion, while the shift to a relaxed, reassuring tone expresses clearly how he has changed from the anguish-ridden man from the rest of the novel.  Completely at odds to the rest of the book, these final lines serve as the ultimate warning to the power of totalitarian regimes to bend and breaks their citizens upon their own whims.  It’s a message just as important today as it was in 1949.


Do you have any thoughts on this selection?  Have I made any notable omissions you think I should reconsider (or read!)? Let me know in the comments!

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2013: My Books

Unless I do some pretty quick reading over the next two days, I think I’m able to compile a complete list of the books I’ve read over the last year!  I’ve managed to extend my record of 38 books last year to 41!  I’ve also increasingly branched into reading non-fiction, largely around historical or political topics though also some science as well, but I’m making sure to keep up the fiction as well.  Like last year, I’ve compiled the books into two lists: in order by date read and my enjoyment of them.  I’m beginning to wonder whether it might be better to have two separate lists for the fiction and non-fiction, as it’s so difficult to compare the two forms.  I’ll bear that in mind for 2014.  For now, here they are:

Order Read

  1. Twilight (2005) – Stephenie Meyer
  2. New Moon (2006) – Stephenie Meyer
  3. Eclipse (2007) – Stephenie Meyer
  4. The Battle for the Arab Spring: Revolution, Counter-Revolution and the Making of a New Era (2012) – Liu Noueihed and Alex Warren
  5. Breaking Dawn (2008) – Stephenie Meyer
  6. American Gods (2001) – Neil Gaiman
  7. Brave New World [re-read] (1932) – Aldous Huxley
  8. Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (2011) – Owen Jones
  9. Cloud Atlas (2004) – David Mitchell
  10. The Bridge (1986) – Iain Banks
  11. Teach Yourself Islam (2003) – Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood
  12. Heart of Darkness (1902) – Joseph Conrad
  13. Death on a Longship – Marsali Taylor (2012)
  14. The Great Powers 1814 – 1914 (1992) – Eric Wilmot
  15. Romeo and Juliet (1597) – William Shakespeare
  16. Doctor Who: The Witch Hunters (1998) – Steve Lyons
  17. The Thief of Time (2000) – John Boyne
  18. Gaia: A New Look At Life on Earth (1979) – James Lovelock
  19. Fight Club (1996) – Chuck Palahniuk
  20. Battle Royale (2000-2005) – Koushun Takami
  21. Hamlet (1603) – William Shakespeare
  22. Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) – George Orwell
  23. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) – Mark Haddon
  24. Consider Phlebas (1987) – Iain Banks
  25. Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky (2009) – Bertrand M. Patenaude
  26. Paradise Lost (1667) – John Milton
  27. The Great Gatsby (1925) – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  28. The Turn of the Screw (1898) – Henry James
  29. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) – Muriel Spark
  30. Oliver Cromwell (1991) – Barry Coward
  31. The Decline of the English Murder and other Essays (1965) – George Orwell
  32. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) – James Hogg
  33. Waiting For Godot (1953) – Samuel Beckett
  34. Cloud 9 (1979) – Caryl Churchill
  35. The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) – Oscar Wilde
  36. Richard III (1592) – William Shakespeare
  37. Ishi’s Brain: In Search of the Last “Wild” Indian (2004) – Orin Starn
  38. Pride and Prejudice (1813) – Jane Austen
  39. The Wasp Factory (1984) – Iain Banks
  40. The Casual Vacancy (2012) [re-read] – J. K. Rowling
  41. Road to Referendum (2013) – Iain Macwhirter

Order of Enjoyment

  1. Cloud Atlas (2004) – David Mitchell
  2. Brave New World [re-read] (1932) – Aldous Huxley
  3. The Bridge (1986) – Iain Banks
  4. The Casual Vacancy (2012) [re-read] – J. K. Rowling
  5. Road to Referendum (2013) – Iain Macwhirter
  6. The Great Powers 1814 – 1914 (1992) – Eric Wilmot
  7. The Great Gatsby (1925) – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  8. Consider Phlebas (1987) – Iain Banks
  9. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) – James Hogg
  10. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) – Mark Haddon
  11. Pride and Prejudice (1813) – Jane Austen
  12. Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) – George Orwell
  13. Death on a Longship – Marsali Taylor (2012)
  14. Doctor Who: The Witch Hunters (1998) – Steve Lyons
  15. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) – Muriel Spark
  16. The Battle for the Arab Spring: Revolution, Counter-Revolution and the Making of a New Era (2012) – Liu Noueihed and Alex Warren
  17. Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (2011) – Owen Jones
  18. Waiting For Godot (1953) – Samuel Beckett
  19. Gaia: A New Look At Life on Earth (1979) – James Lovelock
  20. The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) – Oscar Wilde
  21. The Wasp Factory (1984) – Iain Banks
  22. Ishi’s Brain: In Search of the Last “Wild” Indian (2004) – Orin Starn
  23. The Decline of the English Murder and other Essays (1965) – George Orwell
  24. Battle Royale (2000-2005) – Koushun Takami
  25. Cloud 9 (1979) – Caryl Churchill
  26. Oliver Cromwell (1991) – Barry Coward
  27. Hamlet (1603) – William Shakespeare
  28. Richard III (1592) – William Shakespeare
  29. Teach Yourself Islam (2003) – Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood
  30. Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky (2009) – Bertrand M. Patenaude
  31. American Gods (2001) – Neil Gaiman
  32. Paradise Lost (1667) – John Milton
  33. Heart of Darkness (1902) – Joseph Conrad
  34. The Turn of the Screw (1898) – Henry James
  35. Romeo and Juliet (1597) – William Shakespeare
  36. Twilight (2005) – Stephenie Meyer
  37. The Thief of Time (2000) – John Boyne
  38. Breaking Dawn (2008) – Stephenie Meyer
  39. New Moon (2006) – Stephenie Meyer
  40. Eclipse (2007) – Stephenie Meyer
  41. Fight Club (1996) – Chuck Palahniuk

The Thief of Time (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

I randomly picked this up a shelf from the local library, impressed with the concept and what I believed were author John Boyne’s writing credentials for having written the well-performing The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.  The book is written as a fictional journal for Matthieu Zéla (finally, a character who shares my name!) and explores his life – all 250 years of it.  Since the late 18th century Matthieu has never aged.  This is a concept which has been explored heavily before, although this is my first personal encounter with the idea, and I was curious to see how Boyne tackled it.

Unfortunately, the novel never lived up its potential with this grand idea.  It’s structured around several different periods of his life, ranging from revolutionary France, the glamour of 1920s America, postwar Communist witch-hunts and 19th century Britain.  Each of these separate stories begin and end without a clear pattern, but the narrative returns to two stories: Matthieu’s arrival in the UK as a teenager focusing on his life with Dominique, and the present day.  I found this haphazard way of plotting irritating, I think generally because there was no progression throughout the novel.  I have no problem with fragmented storytelling, as my love of Cloud Atlas testifies, but there has to be a reason for it which The Thief of Time lacks.

My other major issue with the novel is that, all things considered, the individual stories told of Matthieu’s life are just so dull.  “Yes, back in the 19th century I was a businessman with wife X…” “1920s I moved into this industry and married wife Y…”  We get the impression that Matthieu spent his whole life either courting women and investing money, shying away from anything more dramatic.  Ocasionally he gets into fights but his chivalrous and charitable nature keeps him out of most scraps, resulting in him frequently playing the role of a concerned figure of wisdom.  Most of the time the only tension was provided by one of Matthieu’s succession of nephews, all names a variation of Thomas – referred to as ‘The Thomases’.  Each Thomas tends to be impulsive and dies an early death after impregnating a woman, thus ensuring the line continues.  Despite appearing silly at first, by the resolution this plot thread had been adequately explained and given a sensible explanation.  Oh, and often these stories included the name dropping of famous historical figures: “I happened to meet Charlie Chaplin”, “No other than Pope Pius IX himself!” etc.  This was occasionally done to great effect, as with his brief involvement with the Rosenbergs during McCarthy’s Red Scare in the 1950s, but mostly came across as unconvincing and needless.

This problem is made worse by the fact that Matthieu comes across as such a dull character.  He’s likeable enough, patient and wise, but I found him utterly boring and unrealistic as a character – particularly one with his experiences.  Nowhere in the journal does he go into detail of what it’s like to live to such a grand age.  There are passing references, such as commenting on the transience of all political movements and how he sees contemporary trivial pursuits as pointless, but this barely scratches the surface.  What of loneliness?  What of his ego?  Does he really never question it?  Sure, his life (and the book) has been too boring to give him a great deal of angst, but even so.  I can’t help comparing him to Jack Harkness from the BBC’s Torchwood, around whom the concept of immortality is far more successfully explored.  Also, passing references along the lines of: “I’d taken a couple of decades off to relax,” just seem very simplistic, even childish.  Likeable, yes, but Matthieu is a very badly crafted character.

As I mentioned, I found the story of Dominique and his modern day existence more engaging.  Both still felt unconvincing in places, particularly in regard to his relationship with Dominique (who is very inconsistently written), but they at least had been turning the pages and reeling with shock at the plot twists.  The character of Jack, Matthieu’s friend, seemed surprisingly developed and real.  I found this often, in fact – with the exception of the various dull businessmen, the secondary characters often seemed the most multi-dimensioned.  Still, I must have invested enough because I had a silent gasp at Dominique’s horrific fate.  The tale of Matthieu’s ownership of an independent satellite TV channel in 1999 and of his son’s life as a soap star was hardly thrilling, but progressed well.  The conclusion of this story – and, indeed, the novel – was one of its best moments.  I really like Matthieu’s realisation that his added years are those that the Thomases never lived, and the moment he ‘saved’ Tommy from his self-destructive nature he begins to age (in a wonderfully abrupt ending scene).  The fantasy elements are fully described but never quite explained in a way which shouldn’t work but does – the same result Wilde achieved with The Picture of Dorian Gray.

I was both impressed and disappointed with the novel’s portrayal of historical events.  Sometimes it covered them well, as with the 1848 revolutions in Italy and the 1950s Red Scare in the USA.  Matthieu’s opinion of these events was also fascinated; he came across as a reactionary with a not entirely closed mind, normally willing to ‘go with the flow’.  I enjoyed reading the brief note of his enthusiasm for the space program in the 1960s, for instance.  But often, I felt Boyne just didn’t get how to write historical fiction.  I admit it’s a very hard style to write and you can argue he did a good job, being aged only 29 at the time, but there are some glaring problems.  One of which is the fact none of the characters speak as you’d expect from the period.  Dominique and young Matthieu, almost street urchins, talk like well-educated young adults from today.  There’s no register between the characters, nothing in their speech to indicate rank or role in society.  This can be somewhat forgiven when you remember that it’s written as a modern journal – but then, this begs the question, why is Matthieu’s writing style so modern?  Also, take this exchange, set in 1793:

We decided on a whim to take a trip.

“Perhaps Australia?”
“I think not.”
“Africa then.  There’s a whole continent there waiting to be explored.”
“Too hot.  And too underdeveloped.”

Who in 1793 took a trip “on a whim”?  People traveled, yes, but the concept of tourism was far from what it is today.  Then the examples: Australia has a population of only a few thousand at this point and scarcely existed as a united entity.  Travel to Australia took several months there and back, often in diseased and dangerous conditions and, even considering Matthieu’s longevity, would be an almost guaranteed one-way journey.  Even if they made careful plans to return, one would hardly go to Australia on a jaunt.  Africa’s not such a problem but it’s still naive to suggest people would consider traveling there in such an off-hand way; this is many decades before the widespread colonisation of the continent. They ultimately decide to go to France despite, you know, the ‘Reign of Terror’ and the fact France and Britain were at war.  How did they even get there?  It’s just little issues like that which ruined the novel for me, which is a shame because it does come across as very well researched at times.

In conclusion, The Thief of Time was a disappointment.  Not a total failure – there is still much to like – but I found it, overall, extremely boring to read and the largest challenge to finish a book I’ve had for a while.  It’s too long, I think.  If everything which doesn’t work could be culled, changed, reduced or developed then the novel might work but, as it is now, I really wouldn’t recommend it.

Final rating: 5/10

Cloud Atlas [Novel] Analysis

Contains spoilers.

Having watched the film of Cloud Atlas, and loving it, I decided I had to read the book, originally published in 2004 and written by David Mitchell.  I don’t think I’ll write a ‘proper’ review, on the basis that the novel is very similar to the film, but there are still interesting points to discuss and this may well end up morphing into a review of sorts.

The most apparent aspect of the book is the sheer skill of Mitchell’s writing.  I’ve never read anything quite like it.  Each of the six stories within the novel are told in a different style and in a different genre.  You have:

  1. Narrative in the form of fictional journals.
  2. Narrative in the form of fictional letters.
  3. Narrative in the form of a fictional novel first draft – a novel within a novel.
  4. Narrative in the form of an autobiography.
  5. Narrative in the form of an interview transcript.
  6. Narrative in the form of spoken word.

I didn’t quite get this from the film, but I think each section is supposed to be real documents/records – very much harkening back to the 19th century style of writing fiction as fact.  It is complete genius.  Mitchell gets into the head of each character, creating wildly different personas: from the modest and likeable Adam Ewing to the narcissistic and delusional Robert Frobisher, gutsy Luisa Rey to pernickety Timothy Cavendish, and revolutionary Sonmi-451 to troubled Zachry.  The variety of vibrant personalities, literally dozens of them, which are stacked into the novel is astonishing.  The idea of each person being real beyond the confines of the novel, of their work really existing, is reinforced through their ripples into other stories; when Robert finds Adam’s journal, I almost believe it to be real.  Tiny details like The Prophetess casually maintained in the background in San Francisco, 100 years after Adam travelled on it; or Timothy receiving a draft of The First Luisa Rey Mystery – it’s just brilliantly done.

If I had to suggest a criticism for the novel, which would not be easily done, it’d be that some of these connections between characters are rather superficial.  The connections between characters are signified by the comet birthmark, and occasional déja vu, but otherwise the reincarnation aspect is a little flimsy (more on that later).  One of the ideas that most attracted me to the film was the idea of characters’ influences rippling through time to impact the lives of future people, to inspire revolutions, etc.  This is not the case with the novel.  Adam’s Pacific Voyage can only loosely really have a direct impact upon Luisa, or Sonmi’s revolution, and has no literal impact whatsoever upon Zachry on the ‘Ha-Why’.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  There are far subtler links, such as, going back to Adam, his rescue from Henry’s poisoning coming when they reach Hawaii; after The Fall, one of the final refuges of civilisation is on the same island.  Oh!  And, in the dystopia, Hawaii is where fabricants are told they’ll go for ‘exultation’.  Hawaii symbolises salvation.  I have only this moment realised that – another testament to the layers upon layers of depth this novel has.  Though, the fact that Hawaii falls to barbarianism at the end of chapter 6 suggests salvation does not truly exist.  Gosh, analysing this novel is fun.

Adding to that idea, the novel’s greatest links are thematic in nature.  The theme of conflict between the weak and strong, “the weak are meat, the strong do eat“, recurs again and again (The Maori invasion of the Moriori, Henry’s poisoning of Adam, Vivyan’s power over Robert, the power of corpocracy to subjugate a population first seen in 1973 and again in Neo-Seoul, Timothy’s incarceration in the Aurora House and then, back to savagery, the cannibal Kona terrorising Hawaii).  Belief also permeates through the pages: at the beginning, Christianity is being spread throughout the globe as ancient Polynesian religions in the Pacific are wiped out; by the far future Christianity is a long-lost myth nobody can remember, and has been replaced by a belief in Sonmi and other Gods.  This is chronologically foreshadowed when The Prophetess stops at the island of Raiatea, and the theory is given that all religions will eventually fail.  After doing some research, I was also alerted to the theme of ascent and descent: both Adam and Zachry begin their journeys after climbing a mountain; Autua earns a place on the The Prophetess after climbing the sails; Robert falls in love after climbing a tower with Eva, and his downfall occurs progressively after he returns to the ground; both Luisa and Sonmi experience a great fall whilst travelling in a Ford, which indicates the beginning of violence in their stories; Felix inch is killed by Dermot by being thrown off a building; the process of awakening within Frabricants is called ‘ascension’, and Sonmi must literally ascend an elevator to escape from Papa Song’s; and the collapse of civilisation is termed ‘The Fall’.  Humanity is a species on a rollercoaster, the book seems to scream.

The brilliant characters, backstories and historical settings Mitchell creates are aided by his mastery over language.  Each of the six stories are written differently: the Pacific Journal is written very archaically, as would be expected for the 19th century, with great circumlocutions and vast descriptions, making this a literary analyst’s goldmine.  Robert’s letters are much swifter, often using sentenced excluding pronouncs and beginning with verbs (so, stuff like: “Thought I’d go down to the shops.  Didn’t like them one bit.  Found Vivyan intolerable when I returned) which is a realistic way for someone to write informal letters.  Robert also writes using much musical imagery and with many exaggerations, creating a clear personality for the character.  Half Lives is written in the present tense and, as Timothy comments, is divided into small, serialised chapters, making this a very distinct genre and allowing the action to be swift.  Timothy’s autobiographical writing moves to and fro between the present and the past, making references to the reader here and there as he goes.  Sonmi’s story is told in interview format, which is a neat way of allowing small details to be explained and also of determining society’s attitudes through comments the interviewer makes.  Language begins to change here, with ‘ex’ always becoming ‘x’ – so, ‘xcitement’ and ‘xcercise’ – and finally, by Zachry’s time, it’s just gone mad.  I commented on the future dialect in the movie, which was bravely kept in, but the novel was staggeringly well-developed on this front, with a good 80 pages written in it.  To quote a random example:

   “Yay, but what’d we do?  My thinkin’ was stormin’n’fearing’. The Valleys is raided’n’burning’, prob’ly … an’ if Hilo ain’t fallen yet, it’ll fall soon…
My friend jus’ tended my wounds’n’hurtin’s with bandagin’s’n’stuff then raised a cup’n’med’sun stone to my lips.  This’ll help fix your busted body, Zachry.  Shut up your yibberin’ an’ sleep now.”

You can’t fail to be awed by the level of detail in this.  Typing that, it’s incredibly difficult even to transcribe, let alone create and write consistently for 80 pages.  I still maintain this is Cloud Atlas‘ finest feature.

The central idea of Cloud Atlas appears to be reincarnation, though this is only symbolic at most.  Mitchell explained:

“Literally all of the main characters, except one [Zachry], are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a birthmark…that’s just a symbol really of the universality of human nature.  The title itself “Cloud Atlas,” the cloud refers to the ever changing manifestations of the Atlas, which is the fixed human nature which is always thus and ever shall be. So the book’s theme is predacity, the way individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations, tribes on tribes. So I just take this theme and in a sense reincarnate that theme in another context…”
(shamelessly taken from Wikipedia)

I very much like this explanation, though it doesn’t immediately come across from watching the film.  I think it would be futile to examine the progression of the birthmarked character through the novel, because any connections would be purely accidental on Mitchell’s part.  As he explains, the reincarnation is simply a loose device to make his case for human nature’s consistency throughout the ages.  It is interesting to compare the film’s take to the novel, which had a very deliberately different interpretation.  Reincarnation was signified by the recurring actors, so it would go: Henry => hotel clerk => Isaac => Dermot => an actor for Timothy => Zachry; slave => Jocasta => Luisa => Meronym; Hugo Weaving always played the villain; etc.  And the transition of the soul would go along the lines of: Tom Hank’s characters begin misguided and villainous, but redemption begins with Isaac’s betrayal at Swannekke and he ends as a hero; Halle Berry’s characters begin powerless, first as a slave and then a Jew fleeing persecution, but through Luisa she challenges men’s sexist views on women and, by the time of Meronym, has the most power of any character.  I think this is quite a weak and flimsy interpretation of reincarnation, personally, as what the filmmakers chose to do was limited by the source material.  An ambitious effort, certainly.

Finally, despite the film being very loyal to the novel, there are some quite large differences.  Large sections on the Moriori backstory were cut and the themes of religion; Eva was cut and, in the novel, Robert never shoots Vivyan, quite largely changing the story; Sonmi’s story is highly changed, as she spends a covertly educating herself at a university and it is eventually revealed that Union was a conspiracy by the corpocracy to destroy any public support for abolitionism; and Catkin doesn’t escape Hawaii in the novel.  I can understand why each of these decisions were made in scripting the film, and wouldn’t criticise any of them.

Overall, Cloud Atlas has to be one of the best books I have ever read.  It tops my list of books read in 2013, currently numbering 9 (though, in fairness, the Twilight saga takes up 4 of them).  I feel compelled to read more of David Mitchell’s books, though few libraries seem to have them, annoyingly.  And I see he’s writing another novel now about the ‘stuff between life and death’, which sounds very promising indeed.

Final rating (if I had to give one): 10/10

Cloud Atlas [Film] (Review)

Contains spoilers.

“An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.”

Where to begin?  I honestly don’t know how to review this film – I suspect, much like the book was claimed to be “unfilmable”, this unfilmable film is “unreviewable.”  But I’ll take a stab at it anyway.  I first stumbled across the film when I happened to watch the trailer, and instantly fell in love.  I felt inspired and awe-struck by the trailer alone, and I knew that this is a film I had to see.  I hoped it would not let me down.  The original novel was written by David Mitchell, an author whose work I know of shamefully little.  The film is directed by the Wachowski Siblings – whose most famous work, The Matrix, I’ve recently had an ambivalent encounter with – and Tom Tkywer.  At nearly 3 hours long, this film is not for the faint-hearted.

Within the first five minutes we witness the old, scarred Zachry speaking in a strange, futuristic dialect, journalist Luisa Ray travelling to a nuclear power plant to uncover a conspiracy, Timothy Cavendish writing on his typewriter, Robert Frobisher loading a pistol into his mouth, Adam Ewing seeking out Dr. Henry Goose, and the final interview of the clone Sonmi-451.  The film doesn’t get any easier than that.

Cloud Atlas can be described as 6 separate stories woven together, although the more you watch the more it comes to resemble one story with 6 differing facets:

  1. 1849:  On the South Pacific Ocean, after visiting a slave plantation on the Chatham Islands, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) helps a self-freed slave stowaway, Autua (David Gyasi), while his doctor, Henry Goose (Tom Hanks), slowly poisons him to steal his possessions.  Upon arriving home, he joins an abolitionist movement.
  2. 1936: Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), inspired by Ewing’s journal, helps musician Vivyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) with his compositions, culminating in the composition of the Cloud Atlas Sextet.  During this time he writes letters to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy).
  3. 1973: Journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) meets an older Sixsmith, who now works as nuclear physicist.  After Sixsmith’s death, she works with Isaac Sachs (Tom Hanks) and Joe Napier (Keith David) to uncover the conspiracy to allow the nuclear reactors to fail.  She is driven by the need not to repeat the mistakes of Frobisher, whose letters she reads.
  4. 2012: Publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), fleeing from gangsters to whom he owes money, is tricked into a militant nursing home by his brother, Denholme (James D’Arcy).  He then escapes.  His work as a publisher continues when he receives a manuscript based on Rey’s life, and also writes about his own story.
  5. 2144: In the dystopian city of Neo-Seoul, South Korea, the clone Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) is rescued from servitude by Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess) and enters a resistance movement.  A film based on Cavendish’s adventure helps to cement her beliefs.  However the rebellion fails and Sonmi-451 is executed.
  6. 2321: In a post-apocalyptic world, Zachry (Tom Hanks) lives in a primitive society.  Plagued by cannibals from another tribe, the people look towards their Goddess, Sonmi, for guidance.  When the technologically advanced Meronym (Halle Berry) arrives, Zachry takes her to Sonmi’s temple, but they return to find his tribe has been wiped out.

I truly admire the way in which the action cuts between characters and the six time periods with such ease, finding links to tie certain sections of the stories together.  For example, one moment Autua is balancing across the ship’s yard avoiding gunshots, and then the film cuts to Sonmi and Hae-Joo running across a walkway between buildings over the city, avoiding lasershots.  Both Luisa and Timothy are chased by Hugo Weaving’s characters in a sequence from different stories edited together.  When Sonmi discovers the grim fate of every clone, Zachry simultaneously discovers that his village has been massacred.  When Adam and his wife Tilda decide to join the abolitionist movement, Tilda’s father’s speech, in which he claims the movement is destined to end in failure, is interspersed with shots of Sonmi’s execution.

As I described in the summary, events in one story directly impact another.  As well-crafted as these initial connections are, the further you delve into the story you discover the subtler hints.  The comet birthmark is one, although I believe, in the novel, this is supposed to indicate one character living again and again in different lives, which the film chose to change and do by actor – leaving the birthmark rather redundant.  My favourites are the small connections, such as Vivyan’s house eventually becoming the care home Timothy (both played by Broadbent) is confined within.  While Nurse Noakes threatens to make Timothy eat soap, the clones in Neo-Seoul are fed a substance called soap, which it’s later revealed is protein recycled from former clones.  There is also, arguably, a development of the soul for each character: Hanks’ characters begin as scheming, selfish souls but develop into humble heroes.  Broadbent’s follow a similar pattern.  Meanwhile, Berry’s start off as persecuted characters – first as a Moriori slave and then a Jew in the 1930s – but develops into an independent journalist until finally becoming the most powerful character in the period as Meronym.  I say arguably because I don’t think these were Mitchell’s original intentions, and is merely an interpretation.  But, of course, the nature of Cloud Atlas leaves it open to so many interpretations.

Paradoxically, it is these connections between characters and times which was one of my favourite and least favourite aspects of the film.  I thoroughly enjoyed watching the links come together, but I felt it could have gone further with them.  At the film’s end I was left wondering what the overall point and message had been.  This isn’t necessarily a flaw.  Maybe, being so used to linear plots, I feel as there needs to be an overarching idea where the film could work perfectly well without one.

One part of the film done absolutely perfectly was the acting, make-up and costumes which  successfully disguised the actors in their repetitions across the 6 stories.  Half of the characters I didn’t realise were played by recurring actors until afterwards, such as Jim Sturgess as Hae-Joo Chang and Halle Berry as Jocasta Ayrs.  It is a crime that none of the actors were even nominated for an Oscar.  I was particularly  impressed when actors played a character of a different gender and race to their own – particularly Hae-Joo and Hugo Weaving as Nurse Noakes (which is perhaps one of the funniest things I have ever seen in a film).  While these changes were never 100% convincing, I don’t think they were supposed to be – the audience is supposed to understand that this is the same person in a different life.  I cannot praise this aspect of the film highly enough.

Another thing I loved about the film – something which probably hasn’t been mentioned by critics much – is the dialogue.  Quite simply, it all felt so real.  This is down to both the writing and the acting.  When characters spoke to each other, I believed they were having a spontaneous conversation rather than performing in a well-rehearsed scene.  Compare the dialogue here to the forced conversations in Shetland – for instance – and there’s really no contest.  Best of all, I was stunned to discover that, in the post-apocalyptic world, I was not being dense by misunderstanding the characters but they were actually speaking in a futuristic dialect.  Dialects and languages are complex things which evolve staggeringly quickly when isolated from the rest of the world, but to artificially create one is beyond impressive; it’s utter genius.  It appears to be an extension of Southern US dialects, where certain beats of speech are given further emphasis and twangs.  Artificial idioms and figures-of-speech are thrown in, making the dialect even more realistic.  Read these excerpts:

  • “Yоur аugurіn’ соmе truе, Αbbеѕѕ. Βrоkе brіdgе, јuѕt lіkе yоu ѕаy. Μеrоnym were thеrе, yibberin’ hеr аbout trekіn’ uр Μаunа Ѕоl. Why does this Ρrеѕсіеnt wоmаn соmе сurѕіn’ and twіѕtіn’ up my lіfе?”
  • “Fееlіn’ I оwnin’ yоu a real соwtow, fоr іnvаdіn’ yоur hоuѕе wіth nо ѕаyѕо. Τruе ѕоrryѕоmе… Ѕо, yоu mіndіn’ а ѕtrаngеr querin’ аbоut yоur troddin’?”

It has a poetic effect – almost Shakespearean.  The irony being that if someone spoke like this today they would be lambasted for mutilating the English language with rotten colloquialisms.  I found the dialect a beauty to listen to, though I can appreciate that other viewers would become irritated at the difficulties of understanding the words.

There’s much more I could say about Cloud Atlas, but the review has to end at some point.  Perhaps in another life I will review it differently.  This is, without a doubt, one of the most imaginative, thought-provoking films I have ever seen.  Watching it is an experience.  I have the opportunity to go see it again in a cinema but I don’t think my brain could cope with watching it from start to finish, all in one go, again.  It simply isn’t big enough.  But what I will say is that I feelin’ this move-move is mighty good, and that’s a tru-tru.

Final Rating: 10/10