Sunday, March 3, 2013

Book Review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

David Mitchell's craftsmanship in Cloud Atlas is exquisite.  The book is comprised of six separate stories, each set in a completely different time and place, that are inextricably interwoven.  And not only are they all connected, they are actually nested together in such a way that each story is read or told or experienced by someone in the next until the sixth story.  This sixth tale is told in full, and then the novel moves backwards in time to complete the previous stories, all of which were left unfinished, until we end up back where we started, on a sailing ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in 1850.  I'm still, days later, trying to trace all the points of connection and similarities and overlapping themes.  It's mind-boggling.

Truly, each of these stories could have been a novel, or at least a novella, in its own right.  The inter-connectedness serves to enhance rather than distract from each story (though I did have to flip back and review the last few pages of each story's "part one" when I got to the continuation later in the book) and underscores the inter-connectedness of all human life, one of the overarching themes of the book.  While there were definitely some of the stories I was drawn to more than others, the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.

So, just briefly, and without giving away too many spoilers, here are the bare bones of the six stories:
1)  The first story starts on some islands in the remote Pacific in 1850 and is written as a series of diary entries by Adam Ewing, a notary from San Francisco.  The story breaks off mid-sentence and the scene shifts to...
2) Belgium in the 1930s.  A young man named Robert Frobisher offers his services as an amanuensis to an elderly and infirm composer.  In the abandoned wing of his employer's house, he finds a book titled "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" and starts reading it, only to discover that the last half of the book has been torn off.  This story is told in the form of letters Robert is writing to a friend of his named Rufus Sixsmith who...
3) is a main character in the third story, set in the 1970s.  Rufus reads the old letters from his friend Robert and they are eventually passed on to a reporter named Luisa, who is hot on the trail of a conspiracy to cover up the dangers of a nuclear power plant in California.  This story ends up being a novel manuscript being read by a publisher in...
4) present day Britain.  Timothy Cavendish has been tricked into signing himself into a nursing home and plots to escape. His exploits have been turned into a movie which is being watched by a character in...
5) the future, approximately 2100 or so.  This story presents a dystopian tale of a "fabricant", or clone, named Somni-451 gaining self-awareness.  She falls in with a rebellion against the ruling government and is eventually captured.  Her interview with an archivist is recorded and...
6) about two hundred years later is seen by natives on the island of Hawaii.  In a post-apocalyptic world, the people live much as the island natives in "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" did.

Each story is left somewhat in the lurch, except for the sixth and central one that is told in its entirety.  This technique gave a sense of urgency to the whole book, as all these cliffhangers piled on, one after the other.  Then in the last half of the book, with each resolution I could feel the tension ratcheting down, as the characters came to a point of understanding or acceptance or new resolve.

The genius of this novel is that it is a pleasure to read straight-through, but also provides enough food for thought for several re-readings and angles of analysis.  This is definitely a book to read more than once in order to trace the myriad threads that link the stories together and to mine the rich characterizations and web of human interactions across time and space.

Cloud Atlas
by David Mitchell
ISBN: 9780375507250
Buy it from Amazon (hardcoverpaperbackebookaudiobook).
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

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