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A Sextet for Unusual Instruments

October 3, 2011 by Reader's Connection

Cloud AtlasI often remember reading certain books in certain places. I began the 19th-century sea journal of Adam Ewing, for example, at the Dunkin´ Donuts at Conseco Fieldhouse. And I was up at the Costco on Michigan Road, waiting for rear tires to be put on my car, when I read some climactic battle scenes in a far-future novel (with science fiction elements) set in Hawaii.

Lest I mislead you, I should say right away that these two books are the same book. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is six books in one. In addition to the two I’ve mentioned, there’s a book of letters and a thriller and a couple of other things. I’m not sure how many centuries they span.

Yet all the books-within-a-book (or BWABs) are interrelated in intriguing ways. A character in one of the BWABs has misadventures that are made into a movie which is viewed in another BWAB, and a character from that BWAB becomes some sort of deity in another. A musician in one BWAB composes the Cloud Atlas Sextet, a recording of which enchants another BWAB’s hero.

Despite what sounds like a bunch of narrative trickery, I was surprisingly involved with some of the characters–covering the page with my hand, up at Costco, so I wouldn’t learn too soon if one BWAB’s narrator was going to make some terrible decision–and surprisingly moved by Mitchell’s treatment of the theme of freedom and its various opposites. And I laughed a lot. Since Adam Ewing’s sea journey takes place during the California gold rush, it’s appropriate to say that Mitchell has created a mother lode.

(More recently, Mitchell wrote  The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, about which I raved last December.)