If I was a novelist I’d be very jealous of David Mitchell. He shows in Cloud Atlas as much talent as almost any five excellent novelists put together. He can write historical fiction, science fiction, thrillers. He can invent worlds and the languages that go with them, or recreate eras in the historical real world. His characters move you very deeply, depress you, frighten you and finally inhabit you to no reasonable end. Reading Cloud Atlas isn’t a passive reading experience. How can a story set over many centuries and involving dozens of characters cohere so marvelously? How can it keep repeating themes, motifs and hallmarks which are, by the way, magnificently integrated and balanced? How does this symphony work? It works because Mitchell seems to be able to do anything.
There are six interconnected storylines here, each set in a different time period: mid-1800s South Pacific; 1930s Europe; 1970s America; a future Seoul, Korea; a far-future Hawaii; and present-day Britain (or at least it was present-day when the book came out in 2004, making this narrative another historic ingredient). Throughout the centuries the novel proceeds, forwards and backwards, exploring, primarily, the theme of the human struggle for freedom and dignity and the human lust for control and manipulation. Sometimes these opposing forces compete for dominance within one character. The many cached links between the characters suggest either reincarnation, or the Eternal Return, or simply the eternality of the human condition. Absolutely none of this slows down the plot, which is wholly captivating. This is more a novel of story than one of ideas.
Watching the characters progress toward freedom and dignity and regress away from it is analogous to the title, which refers to charting the shifting nature of clouds and how they recycle the same materials, over and over again, throughout the centuries, only to remain clouds. This may be, among others things, a steady-state novel, where nothing truly gets resolved, but at the same time, hope is almost always held out. No matter what the obstacles-and there are phenomenally charged struggles here-many of the principles still struggle against the gloom. This may sound static, but it is somehow comforting in the end. Almost no novel has challenged me, or amazed me, as much as this one. It’s also a great deal of fun, something that novels of ideas are often lacking in.