This is the novel that I have been recommending to everyone I meet, whether they have asked me to recommend a novel or not. Mitchell's storytelling is exceptional, the novel's structure is unique and clever, and I thought the book was exceptionally fun to read.
Cloud Atlas doesn't have a single plot through its 500 pages. Instead, the novel starts with "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing," an American notary in the South Pacific in the 19th century. His story--involving his medical treatment and his interactions with the Maori and Moriori people--is just getting interesting when it is abruptly cut off, and a second story--this one set in 1930s Europe--begins.
This is how Cloud Atlas unfolds, with each story being interrupted by another one set in a later time period. Subsequent chapters take us to 1970s USA, present-day England, and a future ultra-capitalist transformation of Korea called Nea So Copros. Each chapter has a different form or genre than the one before (epistolary, mystery story, question-and-answer), and the characters and style change completely from one chapter to the next. We do, however, get echoes and links from one story to the next, as the narrator of one chapter alludes to reading, for example, a fragment of "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing," and so on. There is even the strong suggestion that a character is reincarnated from story to story.
The central chapter of Cloud Atlas takes place in a post-apocalyptic Hawaii, in a time when modern technological culture has crashed and people mostly live in primitive societies. Mitchell creates a dialect for this chapter that made it tough going at first (as I find all books in dialect to be), but this chapter proved to be the most affecting to me.
That chapter is also a fulcrum for the book; that post-apocalyptic story is not interrupted by another, and, at its conclusion, the remaining chapters of the book complete the stories that were begun in the first half of the novel in reverse chronological order.
All this may sound gimmicky, but Mitchell tells good stories in interesting ways, and his theme of power and exploitation in human relations was strong enough to carry me through the book. This is one of the best novels I have read in recent years.
TIGER catalog record for Cloud Atlas
Find Cloud Atlas in a library near you
Read A.S. Byatt's review of Cloud Atlas in The Guardian.
Mitchell's Cloud Atlas was the winner of the somewhat silly Tournament of Books at The Morning News.