book-reviews

Cloud Atlas

by David Mitchell

Rating: ★★★★

I saw the film adaption of Cloud Atlas well before I read it, and I found the discrepancies between the two versions rather jarring -- all the more so because they don't really become evident until towards the end of each arc. Whereas the film has a mournful but hopeful concluding tone, the book has a decidedly more downcast ending. Mitchell himself approved of the changes as a translation into film, which says something about the relative merits of the media -- does he think films can't end on a sombre note? If my exposure was the other way on, I'd likely have hated the film.

The novel's format -- six highly connected stories nested inside each other like babushka dolls -- makes for an interesting read, with the chronological end of the story being in the middle, starting a chain of pop operations which let the book jump back up and finish each individual story with a reference to the previous one, until we reach the end of the narrative we encountered at the start, now cleverly loaded with a lot of context from humanity's future. Each of the endings is both nostalgic and forward-looking, and coverage of human history seems to be at least one of Mitchell's aims.

The second aim is probably personal connection. Rather than just outlining broad sweeps of change, Mitchell hones in on individuals, stressing desires, contradictions and compassion to make characters from strange backgrounds relatable to modern readers, making some kind of a stab at outlining common humanity.

Cloud Atlas wraps 18th century historical fiction in successive layers of human history, culminating in a post-global warming primitive setting. It does so with enough style to intrigue any literary reader, and with the topics addressed including race, sexuality, the elderly, cloning and global warming there is likely something in there to interest most readers. Broad recommendation.