Cloud Atlas is as confusing as it is engaging. Normally a difficult to follow plot (or plots in this case) is frustrating for the reader and quickly drains the enjoyment of the reading. However, David Mitchell, is able to tell six seemingly disconnected stories that vary in time, location, and plot direction into a book that may be one of the most fun books I’ve read in a long time.
The book begins via The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing circa 1850 on a voyage East from a tiny south Pacific island to the west coast of the United States. The author’s writing style and tone reminded me of Nathaniel Hawthorne. I was astounded by the depth and breadth of his vocabulary, and expected the rest of the book to follow along these lines…
After a few chapters following Adam, the journal abruptly ends mid sentence and the story takes a radical shift to be the Letters from Zedelghem. Here the story follows the letters from of an english man named Robert Frobisher to a Mr. Rufus Sixsmith. Frobisher is a penniless young musician who is able to convince a great, but aging, composure to employ him as an amanuensis.
The story progresses into a mid-1970’s Grisham like novel, where Rufus Sixsmith is a key figure. This novel is being read by Timothy Cavendish, as we find out in the next part of the story through his autobiography: The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish. This next section of the book is by far the most hilarious, as Timothy is eventually incarcerated against his will in a nursing home where he plots his escape. From here the book takes another radical leap in time and genre to a post-apocalyptic story about a ‘fabricant’ (cloned) girl named Sonmi 451 in South Korea. She knows about Timothy Cavendish’s story through a digital ‘Sony’ she watches in the future. The final story line is presumably the final reference point for all the stories, which takes place in the very distant future on the Hawaiian Islands after the earth is completely polluted and nearly lifeless which is told from the perspective of an island native named Zachary in a thick hawaiian pidgin. It seems Sonmi has led some sort of revolution by which she later becomes a sort of god for the inhabitants of the Island.
But that’s not all, after progressing through all six stories to their mid-way point, the book then progresses in reverse order to bring about the conclusion of each of the six stories – ending with the completion of Adam Ewing’s journal.
Yes, I said it was complex and confusing – and yet, I think I’ve done my best to make it as straight forward and simple as possible.
There are some interesting meta-narratives that flow throughout each of the stories, such as the depravity of humans. The will to power and the tragic results that often follow when one does achieve power.
If you like a very multi-layered story, along with biography and science fiction, then give this book a shot. You may just understand it and will be able to better explain it to me.
However, if you don’t have time for such an endeavor (544 pages), you can watch the Cloud Atlas movie that comes out this fall with Tom Hanks and Halle Berry: