Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
10/10: a brilliant journey through time and culture in six parts
I should preface this by saying that a 10 is not a rare shining gem of perfection. I hope to hand out many 10s as I work my way through books. If I look closely enough, there’s always something that can be done to improve a book. Les Miserables? Sure, it’d be a ten, even though it rambles on about French and Parisian history interminably. Anyway, a “10” is something I enjoyed about as much as I’ve enjoyed any other book I’ve read. And with that out of the way…
Cloud Atlas is six stories loosely connected and interwoven, beginning with a journal kept in the mid-1800s by a notary who’s been sent from California to Australia to track down the beneficiary of a will. He discovers the islands off New Zealand in the throes of colonization, where churches, plantations, and bordellos run by white men give the natives something to occupy their “previously pointless” existences. His journal, interrupted mid-sentence, is discovered by a young British man in 1931 who recounts his journey to become apprentice to a famous, ailing composer in letters to his best friend. His letters pass from the friend to a young journalist in 1974, and so on through the present day, a near future, and a far future. At the end of the sixth story, the fifth story resumes and concludes, then the fourth, and so on until we read the end of the notary’s journal.
What is stunning about this book is the utter confidence with which Mitchell inhabits each of the six different voices, not only in attitude but in language, each section appropriate to its time, or convincing (in the case of the future times). It is rather intimidating to think of how much craft and research went into it, but none of those things enter your head upon reading it. With a couple minor slowdowns, the prose is delightful and the stories engaging enough to make any one of them worthwhile, let alone all six. Though they only connect very loosely on the surface, each one resonates with the same themes, and together they make for a very impressive cycle.
Mitchell’s main theme is the question of what constitutes civilization. One character states that civilization is determined by how those with power treat those without, and that theme recurs again and again through the book. The theme is skilfully explored, but the real joys in reading Cloud Atlas come from reveling in the lush prose and voice, and from watching Mitchell’s expansive imagination explore our past and paint our future. I loved the Infocom game A Mind Forever Voyaging, in which you get to explore the future in ten-year jumps, and while this is nothing like that, it evoked the same feelings in me.
This was a recommendation from my Fabulist Fiction workshop, and I can’t pass on the recommendation strongly enough. It’s the kind of book that leaves me thinking about it for days after finishing it, perhaps even weeks. It makes me want to write wonderful things.