cloud atlas is everything i hoped it would be and more. if i had mr. mitchell’s literary genius, i just might be able to do it justice. given the actual state of things, that’s not going to happen. if you don’t trust me, read any of a hundred glowing reviews.
let me begin by saying that i have been a fan of david mitchell ever since ghostwritten, his first novel. in that book, he did something that captivated and inspired (even if it fell just a tad short for some). he picked up on a theme that has fascinated me for years – connectedness: the invisible connections between people, places, events. history chronicles some of them, but most are relegated to the entropic scrap heap of the universe. he wrote a novel that connected the dots; it was still arresting, even if the lines were dotted.
cloud atlas picks up that thread and weaves a dark tapestry, one that alternately depresses, amuses and enthralls.
<some minor spoilers follow>
cloud atlas further plumbs the theme of connectedness, through six semi-linked narratives that span perhaps 400 years, from the late 1800s through to an unspecified, post-apocalyptic future. how he tells these stories is the great narrative conceit of this novel. it is an accordion, with stories that unfold through the first half of the novel, only to be completed in the second in reverse order.
each story is interesting in its own right, although the degree to which the characters are sympathetic varies significantly. one of the stories even appears to be metafictional, but one is never quite sure. the thing i found so amazing was his voice: he imbued his wildly divergent characters with life, simultaneously spanning genres, from high-seas adventure to gritty, dystopian science fiction. i have only read two authors who can span genres in this way (martin amis and iain banks), and i daresay they don’t do it quite as well as mitchell (blasphemy, this is, as an avowed fan of both of the aforementioned writers).
all of this is grand achievement, and yet mitchell does more.
his collection of tales contains a central theme, one that stitches his threads together. he tells a morality tale without unduly clubbing us over the head with the lessons he wants to teach. he takes a look at human history, finds us wanting, finds us weak. and yet, at the last moment of the novel, he brings us back from the brink to say – wait, it doesn’t have to be this way.
some books you finish, put down, and never think of again. other books hit the bin with force after completion. and yet a third category of books live with you forever, the kind that bring a fierce melancholy at their completion, a yearning for more. cloud atlas brought me to the brink of tears when i finished it…tears of joy at the hope it imagined, tears of sadness that its tale was told.
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