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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.)



  1. John W.. Hill says:

    I, too, found Cloud Atlas quite intriguing and a page-turner. It did seem less gimmicky than I at first imagined it would be and the stories not as interrelated as the jacket blurbs inferred (or is that implied?). However, even though I would recommend this novel, I found the denouement a bit less than the sum of it’s parts. But one thing is for sure, I will definitely go see the movie currently filming when it is released just to see how they do it.

  2. Glenn Halberstadt says:

    Holy smokes. I hadn’t known there was a movie in the works. Should have known, Tom Hanks and Halle Berry and other big names are involved. Actors have different parts in the six different stories.

    I’m not sure I like the idea. I enjoyed it so much as a book that I have my doubts about the film. But, like you, John, I’ll probably go to see how they pull it off.

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