Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell's 2004 novel, affirms the impression I had after reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: David Mitchell is one of the great writers of our time.
There is so much to say about this novel that it is difficult to know where to begin. But I'll start with the structure.
Cloud Atlas is actually 6 different stories:
- The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing is the story of a San Fransisco notary bound for home from the Chatham Islands on a trader's ship in the South Pacific in the mid-1800s.
- Letters from Zedelghem is the story of Robert Frobisher, a musical prodigy and outcast of a well-to-do family, who takes work as an amanuensis for a master composer in Belgium in the early 1930s.
- Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery is the story of a beautiful young reporter on the trail of a crooked energy company in California in the 1970s.
- The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is the story of an elderly publisher who runs afoul of Irish gangsters and retreats to a home for the elderly, where he is subsequently imprisoned. This story is set in the United Kingdom in the early 21st century.
- An Orison of Sonmi~451 is set in a dimly-visible future Korea, where Sonmi-451, a genetically-engineered "fabricant," glimpses an existence beyond her life as a food server.
- Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After is the story of Zacry, a goat-herder in post-Apocalyptic Hawaii in the far distant future.
But the mirroring exists within the stories as well. Although separated by oceans and centuries, the stories are connected in subtle ways. The characters in each story have eerily similar experiences. Each is confronted with similar dilemmas.
It is a measure of Mitchell's enormous ability that he relates each story in a different style. The Adam Ewing story invokes Melville, while the Luisa Rey story is written like a modern-day thriller, and the Sonmi story is a social science-fiction tale a la Aldous Huxley. Mitchell adopts a voice appropriate to each style and does so perfectly --the work of a virtuoso.
At its core, Cloud Atlas is an examination of humanity's conflicted nature. On the one hand, we are ruthless predators that commit unspeakable cruelties. On the other, we have a rare and beautiful propensity for compassion, for kindness. The former threatens to destroy us, while the latter offers, if not salvation, at least redemption.
Cloud Atlas is full of powerful, memorable scenes. It is moving, hilarious, exhilarating, and horrifying by turns. It leaves an indelible residue in one's being, a perplexing composite of dread and hope.
What more can you ask of a novel?