I’ve wanted to read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell ever since its release in 2004. I didn’t know much about its plot, only that it was about connections and had received many accolades. I asked for it (and received it) for Christmas and finally made time to read it for my 2016 Big Book Summer Challenge. It was well worth the wait! I never wanted it to end and feel like starting over from the beginning now that I have finished it. This wholly original novel is a set of stories, from different times and places, that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Reading Cloud Atlas is a thoroughly enjoyable journey of discovery, with surprises around every corner.
This is such a unique book that it is going to be challenging to describe. I really just want to shout, “YOU MUST READ THIS AMAZING BOOK!” but I will try to do it justice.
As I mentioned, the novel is actually a series of separate but ingeniously linked stories whose connections are not immediately obvious. Each story has its own style, its own characters, and its own method of storytelling. They each take place in a different time – starting in the 1800’s all the way through sometime into the far future – and in a different place. It is only as you read and progress through the book that the subtle connections between the stories gradually unfold into a cohesive whole.
The novel begins with The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, a first-person diary written by a man in the mid-1800’s who is on board a ship, sailing from remote islands off the coast of New Zealand, where he had business, through Hawaii, and back to his home in San Francisco. The next section, Letters from Zedelghem, is a series of letters from one friend, living in Belgium in 1931, to another. Next is The First Luisa Rey Mystery, a narrative about a journalist investigating a possible nuclear industry scandal and cover-up in the 1970’s in a fictional California city (which I just looked up and learned of yet another hidden connection in the book!). In the very first sentence of this story, we encounter a familiar name from a previous story.
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is next, which its author explains in the first pages is his hand-written memoir of events that took place in 1990’s England. The book then jumps ahead to an undetermined time in the future in Korea in An Orison of Sonmi-451, in which the world is both similar to and very different from our own today, and an interview with a criminal gradually reveals the details of that dystopian world. Finally, we get to the story Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After, a verbal telling of a story by an old man about his childhood, on Hawaii very far into the future, after some sort of apocalypse has taken mankind back to its agrarian roots.
Each story links with the others in subtle and creative ways and is revisited twice in the book, in reverse order the second time (except the last one I mentioned which is a single story in the middle). I was a bit confused by the books’ shifting perspectives at first but soon settled into its unique rhythms and went along for the ride. And what a ride it is! As you start each new story, you don’t know how it will connect with the previous ones, but discovering those tiny connections between people of different times is one of this novel’s unique joys.
The writing in Cloud Atlas is nothing short of mind-blowing. Each story comes across as written (or spoken) by a different character, in a different style, and with a different way of narrating. David Mitchell is like the conductor of an orchestra, bringing these separate tunes together into a cohesive symphony. It’s a unique experience in fiction…and I’ve read a LOT of novels! In addition, Mitchell’s writing is so beautiful that I often tabbed quotes that I wanted to write down, like this one, that one friend writes to another in Letters from Zedelghem:
“Autumn is leaving its mellowness behind for its spiky, rotted stage. Don’t remember summer even saying good-bye.”
I love books that make me think, and Cloud Atlas also includes many thought-provoking lines that struck me. This one is from the interview in that dystopian future, but its insights apply remarkably well to our world today (and to all of the worlds depicted in the novel):
“…ignorance of the Other engenders fear; fear engenders hatred; hatred engenders violence; violence engenders further violence until the only “rights,” the only law, are whatever is willed by the most powerful.”
Cloud Atlas is one of the most clever, interesting, engaging books that I have ever read. Did I mention how clever it is? The more I read, the more I liked it, until I got to that point that arrives in all excellent novels, where I never wanted it to end. Two weeks later, I am still thinking about it and marveling at such an intricate, smart, unique approach to telling a story. This is a book that will stick with me for a long time and is definitely in my top 10 books of all time. I can’t wait to read some of Mitchell’s other novels.
Not convinced yet? “YOU MUST READ THIS AMAZING BOOK!”
509 pages, Random House