This is one of those have-to-read, best-novel-of-my-generation books that I just never got around to reading until now. I’d read another one of Mitchell’s books in high school and enjoyed it (Black Swan Green), and it was just a matter of time before I picked this one up.
I’m going to preface my review with the note that I don’t really like post-modernism, post-apocalyptic settings, and science fiction, which also really colored my perceptions of this book (because it is based heavily, at least in certain parts, on all three). I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m really just not all that into experimental fiction. I do like writing that plays with form and structure to an extent, but I have a really hard time connecting with highly-stylized novels. It’s a personal preference thing, and there are a lot of books I objectively recognized as good (or even great) without actually really liking them myself.
Cloud Atlas is one of those books. I did really like the concept: six independent yet interconnected narratives taking place over a span of hundreds of years. The narrator of each encounters the (usually written) story of the preceding narrator, which provides the links between each tale, and all of the pieces are thematically very similar. The structure is really unique in that each story is interrupted at a key moment about halfway through, then revisited at the end of the book (so the chapter structure goes like this: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1).
I mention this because my interest definitely waned from the first story to the sixth. I liked the earlier stories (so, the ones set from the 19th century to present) and couldn’t get into the 4th and 5th stories at all. I completely lost interest and just could not connect with them (to be clear, these two stories are the ones where Mitchell gets really futuristic/post-modern and starts to play a ton with language and style) and it really made it difficult for me to get back into the stories I did like later on when they reappeared. It was also just too meta for me (the idea of stories within stories within stories) and it kind of made my head hurt.
I like challenging books, and this was certainly a thinking person’s novel. It was beautifully written and the characters were really strong and real. But I just couldn’t get into this book. It may come down to personal preference–it also might just be a mindset thing (I find that I can’t get into some books if I’m not in the right frame of mind, and when I tried to read this I was going through a lot of stress and transition which could definitely have affected how open I was to enjoying this book). Anyway, I’m not giving it a bad review because I do think it’s objectively a good book, but just not a book for me.