I’ve never read anything quite like it. – Michael Chabon
The above quote, in regards to David Mitchell’s epic saga Cloud Atlas, is really the best way to sum it up. It is a journey that is nothing like anything else you will ever read — the story crosses time and space everywhere from a ship leaving New Zealand in the nineteenth century to Hawaii in the far distant future.
Cloud Atlas is a series of tangentially related stories that are arranged as a series of nesting dolls. As you progress through the narrative, the stories move forward in time – first the mid-1800s, then the 1930s, onward to the future – until you reach a post-post-apocalyptic Hawaii, after which the conclusions of each story are presented in reverse order, essentially ending the book back at the beginning. This can take some getting used to as a reader, since you only get the first half of a story before it jumps to a new time and place.
Once you adjust to his rhythm, though, Mitchell soars into complex emotional drama and philosophical ideas about reincarnation and relationships that span the ages. Mitchell is a master wordsmith – not only can he write beautifully in a multitude of styles, but he also manages to make the language evolve from a nineteenth century style to the future, where all cars are “Fords,” all shoes are “Nikes,” and the “ex” preface in a word (such as explode or explore) is obsolete and replaced simply by an “x.”
This complex novel bends traditional ideas about genre, too. Mitchell’s stories encompass everything from a series of letters written from a musical savant in the 1930s to an Orwellian post-apocalyptic Korea and beyond. This is a book that demands your full attention as a reader, and Mitchell’s expertise as a writer ensures that it holds that attention until you come around full circle. It will appeal to readers who are looking for something that will make them think, especially those who enjoy dystopian works.
You can put a hold on this book in the Deerfield Public Library catalog right now, and once you’ve read it, be sure to check out the movie – it’s really quite lovely, especially as a companion to the book. For additional genre-bending reads, be sure to check out “You Might Also Like These …” at the bottom of the book’s page in the catalog.
This review was previously published by the Deerfield Review.