Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Mr. Mitchell’s epic Cloud Atlas spans several centuries, leaps continents and cities in a single sentence, comprises itself of at least five different variants of the English language, and flirts with as many different forms. This is not one novel, but a collection of novellas which loop and coil around one another, inform one another, flirt with greater themes and truths while still (mostly) managing to maintain a coherent shape and an approachable style. This is a masterpiece written by a truly gifted and disciplined craftsman.
Structurally, this book sprawls across five stories: The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (a diary), Letters from Zedelghem (an epistolary), Half-Lives: A Luisa Rey Mystery (thriller), The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (memoir), An Orison of Somni ~451 (interview), Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After (oral history), and then back through each of them for a second visit in reverse order. Each is quite different, sometimes they stop in mid-sentence.
For this reason, the book is long and occasionally frustrating, in the way several of Mitchell’s books can be. Just about the time you’ve got a grip on the new language of a particular section, just as you’ve started to really become engrossed in the narrative or the trials of a particular character, Mitchell changes the channel on you. The metaphor of channel surfing feels appropriate somehow, because it feels that abrupt and disconnected. But unlike channel surfing, these stories are intertwined, sometimes if only at the “butterfly flaps its wings in China” level. And there is a greater whole presented with themes that seem to carry throughout other Mitchell works.
This is a great writer with something to say and a powerful drive to transcend the confines of genre fiction.
I finished this one the morning of December 19th, 2015, the day after our 11th wedding anniversary. We have just arrived here on Dragon’s Cove for two weeks. There is a rainbow over the violence of the sea just to the west and the strange old witch house creaks and groans a little as it warms up.
Time for another cup of coffee.