On Our Bookshelves: Cloud Atlas

NOVEL: Cloud Atlas

AUTHOR: David Mitchell


REVIEW (contains spoilers):

This book makes you work a little harder than most…it’s not a straightforward novel by any stretch, and not a straightforward narrative.  It begins, a little slowly, as a journal in the Pacific Islands in 1850, wherein a naïve young American records his adventures and misadventures.  This narrative abruptly stops and we are treated to a series of letters from a young composer in dire financial straits who has a rather complicated romantic life.  Then there’s another jump to 1970s California, where a young reporter is risking her life to uncover a conspiracy of corporate criminality.   Next up: a farce involving a publisher in present day England who is imprisoned in a nursing home, having accidentally committed himself.  Fast forward to a dystopian future Korea in which a cloned restaurant worker finds herself involved in a revolutionary plot.

The last story is a campfire tale in a post-apocalyptic Hawaii.  But the novel doesn’t end there: the science fiction story picks up again, and is resolved; then the hapless publisher and some of his fellow inmates plan a successful escape; the corporate villains are undone; the epistolary novel reaches its sad conclusion; and lastly, we finally get to the end of the sea story we started with.

And during this vast journey through time and space, Mitchell ties the segments together by narrative (the 1970s piece is the manuscript of a novel being edited in the present day section, the composer is reading the 1850 journal, the clone watches a movie depiction of the publisher’s travails, and so on) and by theme: the moral choices that individuals make in a world in which the strong prey upon the weak.

Some might find the abrupt shifts in story and tone too jarring to enjoy.  The author certainly seemed to be showing off a bit dipping in and out of the various genres, but I can’t begrudge him that…I’d do the same if I could write nearly so well.  It’s big, it’s ambitious, and it’s certainly not for everyone, but I enjoyed it tremendously.  I don’t often find a book so very full of ideas and with such a generous heart.

(The 2012 movie makes the connections between the stories considerably more explicit by using the same actors repeatedly throughout the various events, but it simplifies the plot a great deal as well.  It wasn’t a hit, and received rather mixed reviews, but I thought it was quite a good take on an extremely rich and complex story.)

RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best): Four Whistles




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Art Courtesy of phloxit/Shutterstock.com


Laura LaVelle can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com