Sep 15, 12
Read in April, 2011
(DISCLAIMER: This review was my knee-jerk reaction right after reading the book. Since then my admiration for CA has diminished. I will let the original review stay as it is. I disown this review though.)
WOW. With my vocab-deficit, I can't find the perfect word to express how reading Cloud Atlas felt. I will put spectacular as a placeholder. It has been quite some time since I read something this exciting.
So. The thing about Cloud Atlas is that everything explaining the central theme of the novel is embedded, in very clear words, within the novel, but rather in-conspicuously. Mitchell does not try to expound his theory anywhere, he does not hold a laser pointer attracting the reader's attention to the heart of the matter.
I can easily pull out a couple of quotes from the novel, which would perfectly summarize what, for me, is the essence of the book. Most of those quotes appear to be just another thing that one of the characters said. Seen within the scope of the individual stories where these quotes appear, they wouldn't amount to much. It is only when you look at the complete map that Mitchell has laid out, that they begin to be meaningful. However, unless the reader has already developed a vague understanding of what Mitchell is trying to tell us, one could walk by those sentences/dialogues unsuspectingly. You need to know what you are looking for, to be able to notice them. And figuring this out makes the reading experience entirely wonderful and intellectually engaging. Which is why I am refraining from including any quotes giving away the theme.
I suppose everyone has already heard enough about how Cloud Atlas consists of six different stories and how it is structured in an innovative manner. These six stories are very different from each other, yet they belong very much together. Mitchell connects these stories in various ways and at multiple levels. There are some direct connections which Mitchell spells out for everyone. He even mentions a few things which mirror the form of the novel itself. Then the stories are sprinkled with numerous subtle hints which give one delight if discovered, but do not take away much if not. And at last there are connections at a conceptual level which bind and unify the entire thing.
Sadly, an undiscerning reader may not notice much going on beyond the structure of the novel and perhaps label it as gimmicky. One of the characters in the novel itself brings up the question about whether this form is revolutionary or gimmicky, with respect to a musical composition that he is writing. In my opinion, the form is well justified and does a marvelous job at putting the point across. However, this form itself could also be held responsible for obfuscating the main point by diverting a reader's attention.
Each of the six stories is largely plot-driven. As Mitchell moves from one time period to another, the story's setting, tone, language, characterization etc. changes drastically. There are authors who sound the same in their different novels. And here we have Mitchell who sounds like six different authors within one novel. Each story can be read and enjoyed as a stand-alone novella. But the whole is definitely more than the sum of the parts, by an astonishing amount.