Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
There's a reason I still love having tangible, paper books. No, it's not the extra weight in my purse or that I think I look cooler when I'm reading an actual book, turning actual pages in public places (alright, yes, it's a little bit that reason) but I love feeling connected to the words on a page. I like knowing that I can highlight and write in margins and leave my very own, albeit small, mark in a better, more inspiring piece of work. I like the thought that my notes and ideas and the quotes that I love will now, forever, if you use pen, be a part of the work. And now, my copy of Cloud Atlas is branded for life as my own. I'm pretty pleased about this.
In an odd turn of events, last night I happened to see Midnight In Paris, a film that I would consider a film for writers. In much the same way, this is a book for writers. It's equal parts inspiring and jealousy-inducing and it's rich and velvety. You can just fall into this novel, get lost inside its characters and its prose and, most of the time, allow the chair your sitting on or the bed your sitting up in to disappear completely, escapism at its finest. No easy feat considering that there are 6 worlds to land in and 6 characters (kind of) to adjust to. What took me aback was just how quickly and smoothly the transition between characters (and worlds) happened; within the mere turn of a page in fact. One moment you're on a late nineteenth century boat, baking in the Pacific sun, the next you're in 1920s Belgium, and all the time that's passed is a moment.
The novel's form is unlike any book that I've read. Beginning in the late 1800s and working through, generation by generation to the distant future, then circling back around again, a beautiful loop is made through time, about time. It's all cyclical in the end, isn't it? The decisions we make today create the future, and yet, the future will, at some point, be someone's past. It's all fluid and changing, and the only thing that gets in the way are our meaningless, meaningful lives. None of us are born knowing we'll be the one the future is reliant upon and none of us knows which one holds the keys to the past. Oh what a tangled web, indeed. Mitchell even plays with the idea of formats within formats, sometimes opting for first person accounts, sometimes third person, sometimes journal entries and sometimes epistolary techniques are employed. Though thankfully, rarely more than one at a time. The only thing tying all of these worlds together, in the book, is the subtle hint at the idea of reincarnation. We've all been here before, and yet, it's always a new world we come back to.
The stories read as vignettes, in a way. Snippets of life that are as much about modes of communication as they are about humanity and technology and the combined impact on the environment at large. Often, it's not a particularly comforting view of the world, and yet, there's always something familiar for the audience to root itself in. Sometimes it's just an idea, sometimes it's a character, but always, the undeniable universality of being human is on display. In a way, each story deals with a theme too: trust, love, isolation, fear, morality, and survival, and entire paragraphs could be written on the analysis of those, but I'll try not to delve too deeply here. Suffice it to say, there's a lot going on.
And even with all of this, what kept everything moving, for me, was simply the beauty of Mitchell's phrasing. It wasn't just that his ideas were infinitely worthy of discussion, but that he was able to envelop them in such a way that sometime re-reading was desired, not demanded. Each of Mitchell's characters has such a distinct voice, a language that is familiar to only them and their time, that even given just one sentence from each, I'm almost certain that a reader would be able to match them.
And yet, sometimes it was this distinct voice that caused me pause. I got hopelessly led astray right at the peak of the temporal arc, finding it difficult to follow along with Zachary's story. The language took some getting used to, and I found that for me, my enjoyment of reading it waned slightly, and I was beyond thrilled to learn that i would be going back to Corporacracy and Sonmi-451. As was bound to happen some stories are more interesting than others (I took a keen interest in Frobisher, Sonmi-451 and Louisa Rey) and found that some of the characters even became more interesting the second time around, and yes, I'm looking at you Timothy Cavendish, but on the whole, to not recommend this book based on a few, personal preferences would be to allow people to miss out on what very well might be one of the most unique and exciting books I've read in a very, very long time.
Overall, really a 4.5, but since Goodreads is only set up to handle more decisive minds, I'll take the low road, mainly for difficulty level, but to some people, that might be the draw.
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