Two of my favorite books from the past 10 years were by David Mitchell (number9dream and Ghostwritten). Both of those books were unique and slightly trippy, which are characteristics that I really enjoy in a book. I have been eager to read Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas for the past couple of years. The book was included on the list of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die…and being the list-whore that I am… I feel an insatiable need to read as many books from that list as possible. 😉
Cloud Atlas did not disappoint. This book is like a nesting doll of interwoven short stories. Each short story is written in the style of a different genre, takes place in a different era, and is sliced in half…each story sandwiching another story. It is a very difficult book to explain, but at its core it is about good and evil.
The first story is a 19th century sea-fearing tale (think Billy Budd) about Adam Ewing who is travelling aboard a ship destined for California. The 2nd tale is set in the 1930’s and is about a young Englishman who takes a job working for a famous composer in Belgium…with plenty of scandal and romantic escapades (think Evelyn Waugh). The 3rd story is a mystery/crime drama set in California in the 1970’s, where journalist Luisa Rey is working to uncover the truth about a nuclear power plant that is being built in the area. The next story brings us to present day England where publisher Timothy Cavendish finds himself achieving career success but at the same time his life begins spiralling out of control and he finds himself committed, against his will to a home. The 5th story zooms forward to the near future of the 22nd century to Korea. In this future dystopia, most of the world has become a wasteland and the population is concentrated in large cities that are managed by corporations. These corporations use bioengineering to create “fabricants”, which are humans that are bred to be workers. The lead character is Somni, who works the counter at a fast food restaurant. She develops a mind of her own and a desire to learn. A group of rebels free her from the fast food enslavement and educate her so that she can help their cause. The final story is set in the more distant future in Hawaii at a time where most of humankind has perished. Most of the survivors have reverted to a primitive life where they simply try to get by on the land, with no technology. There are a few more advanced groups left that travel by ship to try to find other people and try to rebuild society. After this 6th story the other stories begin to unwind/complete in reverse order, until we are once again back to the tale of Adam Ewing.
This book is a brilliant work. Each tale may not be your cup of tea, but you can’t deny the overall literary excellence of Cloud Atlas. Mitchell has truly written a unique and special book that will leave you thinking.