Cloud Atlas is a long book, and I’ve spent a lot of time with it over the last weeks, so it’s only natural that I should be a bit obsessed with it now, 5 minutes after finishing it. But it’s more than that. It made me see history and humanity in a new light. It made me want to read moremoremore of it. It made me think about how I had seen this book on the library shelf for years, without knowing ALL THIS was in it. Why didn’t I pick it up earlier?
Having read Jacob de Zoet, I knew what to expect from Mitchell’s writing, but I wasn’t prepared for the scope of Cloud Atlas. In six individual stories, it spans centuries. Starting from the 19th century in the South Pacific to the (likely) end of Civilisation in Hawaii after a nuclear holocaust, the vastly differing styles of texts and writing are connected only by their narrators’ passing reference to the story before, and their subject of power and humanity. All this sounds quite abstract, but there is no other way of putting it without giving too much away.
On a literary level, the differences in style made it difficult for me at first. Each narrative is beautifullly crafted in itself, but the abrupt endings confuse – and are meant to. It was interesting, and not altogether surprising, to see which style and setting I was more comfortable with. Those parts set in the past won me over immediately, whereas the two chapters set in 1970s California and present-day Britain were (and are) my least favourites. The big surprise for me was that I was blown away by the more sci-fi chapters set in an unspecified future. This is a genre I would never choose to read, but I enjoyed it a lot. The most powerful account, in my opinion, is that of Zachry, who witnesses humanity’s last bastion in Hawaii being blown to bits by barbaric tribes. It forms both the end of the timeline and the middle of the book, which then brings all the stories full circle. Going back from the depressing end of civilisation to the equally barbaric deeds of our own forefathers makes for a clever literary device as well as for enlightened reading. Mitchell is a master of language, and all of Cloud Atlas is fictional and, as such, highly manipulative. But for most people, it will simply ring true. There is a hell of a lot of stuff to ponder in this book, and Mitchell is not afraid to put things up for discussion that influence the fate of humanity, i.e. the lust for power, compassion, barbarism and guilt. Although most of the characters in the novel at some point mention those subjects openly, it never feels as if Mitchell is hammering them home. His different narrators are too well constructed to be mere opinion-makers.
Cloud Atlas is one of those books that makes me want to be a better person. I adored it on a literary level just as much as I agree with the sentiments the characters expressed. I want to buy several pretty copies of it and place them all over the house, just so I don’t forget about the experience of holding this book. And most of all, I do NOT want to see the movie, because the pictures I have in my head are far, far prettier than that picture of Tom Hanks with stuff on his face.