Cloud Atlas: David Mitchell


-Review by John Ewbank-

If you enjoy channel-hopping, Cloud Atlas might just be the book for you. Written by David Mitchell (not that David Mitchell, a different – and better – one), it consists of six interwoven stories that range in time from the past to the present to the future, and in genre from historical to thriller to dystopian to farce. Each of the stories is split in two, with the concluding halves (in reverse order) coming at the end of the book. In other words, it’s like nothing you’ve ever read before.

One of the great joys of Cloud Atlas is that you’ve no idea where it’s going next, so I’m not going to discuss the plot (or plots) in great detail. To say it includes slavery in the South Pacific, a man accidentally trapped in an old-folks home, a nuclear conspiracy, and clones working in a fast-food restaurant, should give you an idea of the scope and variety of the book. What’s remarkable is that Mitchell is able to take all these disparate places, times, and genres, and make them all seem authentic and believable.

It’s worth saying that this isn’t a high-brow, concept-album of a novel (although it was Booker prize nominated) – it’s a highly entertaining, full of action, funny in parts, and difficult to put down. That said, Cloud Atlas is also a novel of big ideas; themes running throughout include life and death (particularly reincarnation), the future of humanity, power and slavery, and the cyclical nature of life. It’s entertaining without being trashy, clever without being impenetrable, and you’ll be pondering the deeper meanings long after finishing – definitely a book to re-read.

I imagine that everyone will have a different favourite section. I particularly liked the scenes set in the future, which present a dark vision of the dystopian nightmare that society may be heading towards, with environmental disasters, shady corporations, an obsession with consumerism, and clone labour. There are also some nice touches with how language may evolve in the future, with a coffee known as a ‘starbuck’, hour 7 replacing 7 o’clock (possibly a nod to 1984), and strange spelling such as ‘Xposure’ and ‘Xtactly’.

Cloud Atlas is in my top 5 novels of all time, and I strongly recommend you give it a go. Even if it’s not quite to your taste (and you may find it disorientating at first), you’re bound to find something interesting in there, and you certainly won’t be bored.



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