“Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow?”
So it is for the souls in Cloud Atlas, a novel of nested stories. The time period and characters are different in each story, but it’s clear that many of them share souls with each other – they ARE each other, reborn.
The first story takes place in the late 1800s and we enter it like a powerful drill digging into the crust of the earth. Each story – there are six – takes our drill deeper, and forward in time, until we reach the core, a story set several hundred years in the future. We don’t stop there, but on the other side of the core we continue on through the same layers in reverse, until we arrive back at the surface, in the 1800s, where we started.
The six stories are connected in many ways. Not only do the characters share souls, but each protagonist reads or hears the story of the one who came before them. Additionally, the stories together serve as a history of human greed and desire for power, ultimately leading to the end of civilization as we know it. One character writes: “In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction. Is this the doom written within our nature?”
I was fascinated by this novel. It wasn’t the individual stories exactly – they are strong and well-written, but not mind-blowing – it was the interconnection between them. Mitchell captures and builds his themes in these very, very different stories in an astounding way. I can honestly say he does this better than any other novel in stories I’ve read before. The threads are woven beautifully and almost magically – the book IS the fictional symphony (one character composes a musical masterpiece called Cloud Atlas Sextet) that gives it its name. His experiment absolutely succeeds.
I also enjoyed the thread of repeated events or experiences – as one character says, “we cross, crisscross, and recross our old tracks like figure skaters.” – coupled with the ongoing revelation that there really are no patterns. It’s so easy to find patterns in history and turn them into theories and laws after the fact, but that can never ensure a certain outcome in the future.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes thought-provoking contemporary literature. Cloud Atlas is beautifully imagined and its stories will stay with you.
“Souls cross the skies o’ time… like clouds crossin’ skies o’ the world.”