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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

It's time to talk about Cloud Atlas, which I have been putting off not for lack of something to say but because I want to say everything. The first thing I've got to tell you is that this novel is staggeringly ambitious. Essentially what David Mitchell has done is written six novellas that work together as variations upon a theme but also tell a greater story. What is most impressive about Cloud Atlas is not the story or the message or the themes but the writing, the language, and the technical skill. Mitchell's craft is so finely honed that he has conquered the voice of not only his characters, but six entirely different authors. Each story nestled within the sextet could be the work of a different writer, yet they are all sprung from the same pen, same mind.

But that's enough gushing about the bones, you're curious about the meat, right? Cloud Atlas begins and ends in the eighteenth century but along the way it traverses the near and distant past and future from seafaring Adam Ewing to intrepid reporter Luisa Rey to clone/model/servant/rebel Sonmi-451. There is something here for everyone and quite a lot for anyone to digest. I know it seems unfair to say this, but I do not want to tell you what Cloud Atlas is about in the sense of the plot. I could hash it out for you, but that's not really what the novel is about anyway and it would take away from your own discoveries.

Instead, I'd rather talk about what the novel is actually about in a “what it all means” sense or at least what it means to me. Cloud Atlas is about freedom and slavery in all of their mental, physical, and spiritual forms. It's about connectivity between people and time and history and stories. It's about the pain we can cause and the healing we can affect. It is about humanity and everything good, bad, and downright scary that it entails. Essentially, what I am saying is that this book is about, in the words of Douglas Adams, life, the universe, and everything.

There are things that I did not love about Cloud Atlas (in particular, the ending is heavy handed and overblown in regards to Mitchell's message). And while I may have enjoyed the construction even more than the stories, because puzzling through the text and finding the connections was such a joy, the themes will stick with me. Mitchell's novel has given me pause to think about the way I perceive my fellow humans in all of their forms, colors, shapes, and sizes. Cloud Atlas is worth reading for Mitchell's ambition and technical skill alone, but those aspects coupled with the warning of our penchant toward evils and praise of our capacities toward good make for an enthralling experience.

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