David Mitchell’s third novel, Cloud Atlas, is such an astounding feat that it’s tempting to think there must be several David Mitchells, each of whom wrote one part of the book. A tour de force by the acclaimed British author (Ghostwritten, Number9Dream), the novel crosses continents and decades with six completely distinct but equally entrancing narrative voices.
It begins with the tale of Adam Ewing, an American notary traveling aboard a shipping vessel through the Chatham Islands in the 1850s. The meek explorer, convinced he’s living with a deadly brain parasite, submits to a doctor friend’s dubious ministrations and, meanwhile, finds himself the unwitting champion of a stowaway. Just as the thread of his story pulls tightest, the journal ends—mid-sentence, mid-word in fact—and suddenly we’re reading about the spirited Robert Frobisher, a disinherited British aristocrat in 1930s Belgium with a genius for seduction and musical composition. His narrative, like Ewing’s, is instantly absorbing, and just as abruptly truncated. Now we’re in a corporate-crime novel set in 1970s California, where a troubled young fluff reporter—Luisa Rey, daughter of a famous muckraking journalist—stumbles across evidence of an impending nuclear disaster and massive cover-up. Another cliff-hanging ending, and we cut to present-day London and the snarky musings of vanity-press publisher Timothy Cavendish, who pulls one over on the author of a best-selling prison novel only to find himself bizarrely imprisoned. Zap, and we’re in Korea, in a future full of "replicant" slaves, digitized souls and government by "corpocracy." Then, sci-fi switches to Mad Max for the central part of the book, a far-future Hawaii after the fall of civilization, narrated in dialect by a teenage goatherd.
Like a Chinese box, or some complex literary origami, the novel unfolds even as it’s folding back in upon itself. Each protagonist might be a reincarnation of the one before, a fact that’s hinted at by a recurring comet-shaped birthmark. The longer you read, the more perfectly the pieces fit into a whole; the further you’re drawn into the novel, the more removed your perspective becomes. The reaction this creates is a unique one: large-scale understanding that holds within it the small-scale but vital dramas of the human heart. It sounds incredible, and it is.
Becky Ohlsen writes from Portland, Oregon.