David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, originally released in 2004, went on to become a quick bestseller, winning a number of awards including the British Book Awards Literary Fiction Award. In 2012, the book was re-released to tie in with the movie adaptation starring Tom Hanks.
Cloud Atlas employs an unusual literary device that behooves the reader to know about it before they begin reading the book, as it will make the reading experience a richer and fuller one. Often books employing unusual styles or literary devices force the reader to spend anywhere from 50-100 pages in grasping the device and style that is going on, which can lead to missing part of the story. The device used in this book involves a series of framing stories, five in total moving forward in time, beginning with first parts, then a complete story at the center, and then the second parts of the five stories moving back in time, ending with the conclusion of the story that the book began with.
The first story is set in 1850 in the Pacific archipelago known as the Chatham Islands. Adam Ewing has a troubling experience that leaves him with a lethal parasite lodged in his brain; fortunately one of the few doctors who knows how to treat it happens to be on the same boat. The second story takes place in 1931 in Zedelghem, Belgium, where Robert Frobisher is serving as an aid and assistant to an old music composer who is looking to write something memorable. Frobisher tells his tale through a series of letters sent to Rufus Sixsmith, an old lover and dear friend. The third is set in Buenas Yerbas in 1975, where Luisa Rey is investigating the Seaboard HYDRA nuclear power plant, using the help of one of its engineers, one Rufus Sixsmith.
The fourth story, set in present day Britain, is about the editor for a vanity publisher who publishes a successful manuscript but now owes people lots of money. He flees, looking for escape and finds himself trapped in a strange asylum. The fifth framing story, set in a dystopian future, is revealed to be a totalitarian Korea where clones work underground, making food for the humans above, until one day one of the clones decides to break free. The center story of the book is about a primitive post-apocalyptic society set on the Big Island of Hawaii, told in a particular vernacular.
Cloud Atlas is an interesting experiment; one of those books that is a great example of good science fiction that is sectioned and shelved in regular fiction for its literary qualities. Each of the stories in the book feature references that link them with the succeeding and preceding stories. The center story is told in a vernacular that becomes overbearing for the reader. Overall the book feels more like a short story collection that an overall themed novel. It is nevertheless a fascinating work of fiction, both original and entertaining.
Originally written on February 11, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.
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