He builds worlds out of fantasy and science fiction that perturb and amuse those who dare venture in. As a young teen, I navigated my way through his lengthy masterpiece Bone Clocks and its much shorter counterpart, Slade House. Both novels layer the mysterious, the disconcerting, and the fantastical, while remaining grounded in reality. I was addicted instantly. However, I had yet to read Mitchell’s most renowned opus, Cloud Atlas.
Mitchell takes on the role of not only author, but also architect when it comes to his writing; this was never more evident to me than when I did finally read Cloud Atlas. He constructs his novel in a swooping clockwise fashion, where the reader learns of six strangely interlinked stories, and then in an unfurling anticlockwise motion, where the reader sees these stories resolved in reverse order. Initially, Mitchell holds your hand, and walks you through the lives of each of his six main characters. You are introduced to Adam Ewing, an American notary in 1850; Robert Frobisher, an English musician in 1931; Luisa Rey, a headstrong journalist in California in 1975; Timothy Cavendish, a publisher in the modern age; Sonmi-451, a futuristic clone that has gained consciousness; and finally, Zachery, a tribesmen struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world.
Meeting this many protagonists is made relatively easy by Mitchell’s commitment to their distinct voices and backgrounds. From Ewing’s old-world English to Sonmi-451’s futuristic jargon, the reader becomes immersed in each narration. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is this versatility in narrative formats. On one hand readers sneak a glimpse into Ewing’s world through his journal entries, and on the other act as observers when Sonmi-451 relays her story in an interview. Mitchell also emphasizes the shift between narratives through his diction. Ewing’s entries are detailed, long, that of an adventurer of a bygone age, but Frobisher, our next culprit, is precise and modern in his use of language.
However, this is where it gets tricky: just as you reach a crucial point within the lives of each of these characters, Mitchell abandons you and forces you to move on to the next story.
Interesting, isn’t it? This is what I have come to identify as the “Mitchellian” narrative style. Having been familiar with previous works by the author, I instantly recognized his love for multiple narratives across time and space. However, he takes this one step further in Cloud Atlas. There is an inception-esque quality to Mitchell’s work; he builds narratives into other narratives, thus pulling readers in by keeping them aware of advancements within both current previous character plotlines. Frobisher discovers Ewing’s diary, Luisa tracks down Frobisher’s letters, Cavendish considers publishing Luisa’s book . . . and so on.
David Mitchell creates a rabbit hole, and as a reader you must go down it. His technique keeps the readers asking questions in eager anticipation of that final “aha!” moment. Indeed, as we trek across this mesh of intense storytelling, we become acutely aware of the subtle connections between each story. A haunting comet-shaped birthmark found on each of our narrators, a musical composition named “The Cloud Atlas Sestet”- all small hints of something greater coming together. The genius of this kind of storytelling is that these connections are never forced, but the reader organically identifies them as the six stories unfold.
At the heart of Mitchell’s intricate structure is a simple message about what it means to be human, as well as what it means to be humane. “Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” Mitchell plays with the more fundamental aspects of our humanity: good and bad, brutality and gentleness, the need to conform and the need to rebel. Cloud Atlas’s layered plot, with its myriad characters, allows both the author and the reader to explore these themes in all their profundity. This means there is no end to the connections that can be made and the interpretations that can be drawn by those who dare embark on the journey that is Cloud Atlas.
I rate this book 4.5 out of 5 stars. Though reading it was a transcendent experience, it is a book that requires patience, as it is initially slow to build. That being said, I believe the driving force behind the overwhelming positives of the book is the Mitchellian narrator himself. With his detailed characters, chiastic structure, and intriguing presentation of humanity, the Mitchellian narrator makes you think.
Heer Cheema is a student at Lahore Grammar School in Pakistan, and she is currently in the 12th grade. She enjoys reading and writing poetry. Her favorite poets include A.E. Houseman and Vikram Seth.
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