Meet the Candidate — “Cloud Atlas”

Time to meet the One Book candidates. This week we’ll be focusing on Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.

First a question…what is a Cloud Atlas? Wikipedia tells us that a cloud atlas is is a pictorial key to the nomenclature of clouds. Here is an example of one, Clouds Online. Now that we have some context, let’s get on with information about the book.

Barb McDonald, the One Book Coordinator,  has provided a review:

“Cloud Atlas” is a novel composed of six separate short books.  Each book is unique and not dependent upon another.  The books abruptly stop part way through its telling, at which time the reader has been completely hooked.  The next page begins the next book, until all six stories have been introduced.  Half way through the novel, the unfinished books resume, in reverse order, until the end of their story.  The first book of the novel finishes its adventure as the last book of the novel.  Each book offers characters that are interesting and stories that are compelling.  Contemplating how the books relate adds to the mystery of the novel.  The reader should not be tempted to jump ahead to finish the books in their entirety.  It is a worthwhile voyage to follow the proscribed order of the books.

Although each of the books features an extraordinary tale, the books have a connection to one another. Mitchell employs small clues that weave the books into a novel.   The books’ conflicts, although different, have common threads of avarice, deceit, vanity, murder, and corruption.  Timothy Cavendish, one of the main characters thinks: What I wouldn’t give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable?  To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds.”  Upon careful reading, shared actions and symbols are found in each of the books. The repetition of these devices encourages interpretation and further investigation.

The setting of the oldest story takes place mostly in the South Pacific Ocean on the Prophetess during the time of theCalifornia gold rush.  Other stories include an English composer living in Belgium between the first and second world wars; a young female investigative reporter living in San Francisco during the 1970s; an elderly book publisher living in London in the late twentieth century; a genetically manipulated human slave, named Sonmi-451, living in the future in Korea; and a young male goat herder born years after Sonmi in the Hawaiian Islands.

The vocabulary and grammar used in each book is perfectly matched to the individual story.  At times this can make the reading rigorous, but it is well worth the slower pace as the characters and their conflicts are best felt through their language.

“Cloud Atlas” is challenging.  Like a chef’s tasting menu, the novel startles with each unexpected yet highly anticipated new course.  The tasting menu’s flavors may be simple alone, but complex together.  The courses build upon one another until the meal’s climax.  “Cloud Atlas” is a book to savor.  A movie adaptation will be released in December 2012.  The movie is likely to be a complex thriller with an interesting script calling for amazing cinematic scenes.

If that has piqued your interest, the following reviews should help you decide if Cloud Atlas should be this year’s One Book.

From The Guardian: Overlapping Lives
From The New York Times: History is a Nightmare
From The Village Voice: Only Connect…and Connect
Susan Rife of The Herald Tribune reviews the audio edition: “Cloud Atlas” Interconnects Stories Across the Centuries

Happy Reading!


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One thought on “Meet the Candidate — “Cloud Atlas”

  1. So despite its surface attractions and achievements – and they are many, and many people will devour the book joyfully and without complaint, and good luck to them – I am left with the feeling that, despite Mitchell’s cumulative nimbleness, Cloud Atlas is more a trick than a book, to be returned to in parts (the composer’s letters and the vanity publisher’s “ghastly ordeal” were my favourite parts, both tragicomic and superb first person narratives), but not in whole, not to be lived in and loved over and over until either it falls apart or I do – which is what we want from all our books, after all.

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