“Cloud Atlas” is a difficult book to write about. Rather than being a single continuous novel, it’s more like six short stories wrapped up inside each other like a Russian doll. As such, I will be skimming quite a bit so that I don’t bore you to death before this review is over.
I can sum it up in three words, though: this book sucks.
With my cards thrown on the table hard enough to damage the wood, allow me to expand. As a writer, I feel I should like “Cloud Atlas”. Its sentences are excellently constructed; its six plot arcs work perfectly; and the language it uses is evocative and beautiful. Technically, it’s pretty flawless.
As a reader, though? I hate it.
The first problem is the structure itself. What Mitchell has done is present the beginning of five short stories, then an entire short story, and finally the end of the previous stories in reverse order. While it feels like he’s aiming for a “peeling back the layers” feel to the book, I find that the moment I start to settle into one character’s story, I get flung out into a completely different and utterly disorienting set of circumstances.
And this is even more noticeable as each of the stories is set in a different genre and historical context and written in a different style with a unique narrator and supporting cast. If you happen to like historical fiction, romance, mystery thrillers, comedy, sci-fi AND post-apocalypse fiction, you might find that you enjoy every part of this novel, but I certainly didn’t.
What’s more, of the six protagonists, I loved one – Sonmi~451 – and found two others tolerable – Luisa Rey and Zachry. Adam Ewing’s racism, which fitting for the time period his character comes from, was distinctly uncomfortable, as was Robert Frobisher’s anti-Semitism. And the less said about Timothy Cavendish, the better. His sections were a chore to get through because I found the character utterly loathsome.
The number of characters is also an issue. The moment you get settled with one group, you’re thrust into another crowd and have to start again. And by the time the book comes back to them, you’ve forgotten who’s who or why you ever cared.
But the one thing that damned “Cloud Atlas” in my eyes is its overall theme. While its final line aims for uplifting, the contents are miserable and defeatist. Ewing and Zachry’s worlds are full of cruelty and slavery. Frobisher and Cavendish face torment and despair. Luisa Rey and Sonmi~451 are surrounded by death and treachery. It’s relentlessly miserable and a single uplifting finale can’t compensate for it.
Mitchell is a talented writer and “Cloud Atlas” is expertly crafted, but the best book in the world is worth nothing if reading the thing is too unpleasant an experience to face. Give it a try if you want: I won’t blame you if, like me, you end up wanting to chuck the book in a river before you’re through.
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