Note: This review is part of the Booklist 2005 Project.
In case you missed it, Cloud Atlas won the The Morning News’ First Annual Tournament Of Books. As a contributing writer for TMN, I was asked to participate in the tournament, but I declined because I had an upcoming trip to D.C. on my calendar, and assumed I’d be too busy to read. As it turned out, I spent pretty much the entire trip devouring the very book I would have been reading otherwise. I started Cloud Atlas on my flight East, read it during every available moment while there, and finished it on the plane home. Something of a page-turner, that book.
Cloud Atlas a book of short stories, or a novel, or maybe both at once — it’s hard to tell. It has a very peculiar narrative structure, that much is certain. The separate stories (or are they separate stories, hmm?) take place in different time periods, and each is told in the tone and vernacular endemic to the era: the first story, set in the 19th century, has an ornate, Heart of Darkness feel to it; a later story takes place in the 1970’s, and bears a striking similarity to the pulp thrillers of the era; and so on.
What’s amazing about Cloud Atlas is that each story seems completely authentic for its time period, and (with the exception of one misfire) each is enthralling. The voices of the stories are so distinctive that, were the names of six authors listed on the cover instead of just David Mitchell’s, the reader would never suspect that they had all come from the same pen. It seems more like an anthology than the work of a single, amazing writing.
Unfortunately, the sum is somewhat less than the parts. I don’t want to go into too much detail about the “peculiar narrative structure” I alluded to above (although I will in the comments), but it hints at a much bigger payoff than the book ever delivers. My assumption was that all of the stories were in the service of the structure, and that the connect between them would ultimately be revealed; alas, in the end the mystery is not only unsolved, the reader is left wondering if there ever was any mystery at all, whether the structure was a means to a deeper novel or simply an if end in itself. Or as one character puts it, “Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished.” I’ll confess that I did not know when I finished, but the more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to believe it’s the latter.
Even so, it’s one of the better books I’ve read in a while, despite the disquieting feeling of disappointment I felt as I neared the end and realized that the questions it raised were not going to be answered, or even addressed. But make up your own mind. Revolutionary or gimmicky? You won’t know until you’re read it yourself.