Cloud Atlas is a remarkable and enthralling novel that transcends boundaries of time, genre and language by telling the story of six interconnected lives.
What is it about?
From the mid-19th century to a post-apocalyptic future, David Mitchell tells the story of six different individuals, living in six different eras and in six different places, whose lives are somehow interconnected. The recurring idea throughout the book is that past, present and future are inherently linked.
In this breath-taking book, David Mitchell manages the incredible feat of using a different style and genre, as well as a different language, for each of the stories he tells. Here is a brief overview of them:
- In the mid-19th century, an American lawyer called Adam Ewing travels in the Chatham Islands and writes entries in his journal, describing what he sees and experiences, from slavery to illness.
- In 1931, Robert Frobisher, a young, disowned, British composer writes letters to his lover Sixsmith, about his new life working as an amanuensis for an old British composer that lives in Belgium.
- In the seventies, the California-based journalist Luisa Rey investigates on a report, written by Rufus Sixsmith, which reveals how unsafe the nearby nuclear power plant actually is.
- In the present day, an old publisher, through a series of comical events, finds himself locked in a nursing home and tries to escape.
- In a dystopian futuristic state in Korea, a “fabricant” waitress called Sonmi~451 is interviewed, revealing a world divided between “clones” and “purebloods”, with its underlying government issues and manipulations.
- In a post-apocalyptic society that worships a goddess called Sonmi, Zachry tells a story of his youth where his people, peaceful farmers, lived under the threats of the Kona tribe, and were sometimes visited by more technologically-advanced people, the Prescients.
From these short summaries you can already see how some stories are linked, but this is only the most obvious ones, and there are constantly new revelations and small connection as you go through the pages of this spectacular book.
As you might have understood from the previous paragraphs, I absolutely adored this book. It keeps you on edge, makes you laugh, think and wonder. You become attached to some of the characters, discover new things on each page and want to know more about the world that Mitchell is describing.
What I found brilliant in this book is how you not only have six different stories with their own plots and developments, but also a bigger overarching one, which tells the story of the world. You go from one era to the other with a page turn, and from each story you can build the timeline of the world Mitchell narrates.
The structure of the book is like a “mirror” of embedded stories, which is in my opinion an excellent idea to keep the reader interested and on edge. On each chapter you discover a completely new story with some familiar details (linking to the previous – or future – stories) and can relish in the author’s linguistic virtuosity, from different genres to actual changes in language, to show how speech evolves with time.
As a linguist, I thought it was simply remarkable how he managed to go from one style and genre to the other, adapting to all the stylistic requirements of each. This means that it was sometimes hard to read, especially the post-apocalyptic language, though you quickly get the thing and it can be easily read (maybe a bit slower) once you get used to it!
Finally, I loved how Mitchell makes you think about a variety of different topics, from slavery and racism, to technologies, to the role of the government and its manipulations, and to the humans’ impact on the environment.
Would I recommend it? Absolutely. That is, if you are in for a complex yet intriguing read, that makes you feel like you are building a puzzle, while taking you on six different, thrilling adventures.
The novel was adapted to film in 2012, and it is the movie Cloud Atlas that I discovered first and absolutely loved. It is a good introduction to the book and I wanted to watch it again as soon as I finished it! I am actually glad that I saw the movie before as its soundtrack accompanied me throughout the book, especially through Frobisher’s story.
Have you read or seen Cloud Atlas? What did you think?