Do you remember the first time you encountered nesting dolls? You saw an ornately painted wooden figure and picked it up out of curiosity. Then you noticed a crack running through its midsection. Puzzled, you pulled both halves apart to find another, smaller wooden doll on the indside. You repeated the process again and again, until finally you were left with a tiny replica of the original figure, and the disassembled parts of the larger dolls. Next, you put the smallest figure into the one that was slightly bigger, and so on, reversing the process until you are left at the beginning. You weren’t quite sure of what exactly the purpose of the nesting doll was until you had reached the center, and returned to where you started.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is a literary nesting doll. The book consists of six novellas. The first five novellas stop mid story. When you reach the six novella, there is no interruption in the plot. From there, the stories pick back up and finish, but in the opposite direction. To put it simply, if each novella were assigned a number, the structure is: 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-3-2-1.
Each of the novellas has a different genre within itself, but the overall book is a complex exploration of religion, science, philosophy, and reincarnation. The unifying theme is a comet birthmark, which makes its appearance in each story on one of the characters.
The message of the book, which is that we are all connected by time and souls that float from one body to the next, becomes obvious as the reader progresses from one novella to the next. Each novella is fairly weak when examined apart from the other novels, but perhaps this was an intentional strategy. Like a nesting doll, you need to read the entire book to fully appreciate the message.
My biggest critique of the book was that the delivery of the moral lacked the literary punch I was expecting. Perhaps Mitchell was trying to achieve too much in this behemoth that his main message was overwhelmed by sub-meditations and revelations. I found myself wondering what exactly he wanted the reader to take away from this ambitious novel. It was only after I watched the movie and couldn’t fall asleep that night that I realized: if anything, this book makes you think. There I was, lying awake at night, trying to decipher all of the complexities and subtleties and finding myself going around in mental circles. I can’t remember the last time a book has affected me in this way.
My recommendation to readers is to watch the movie after reading the book. Even for the seasoned bibliophile, this book is complicated and seeing the action on screen helps in peeling away the layers of the story.
I give this book 3 out of 5 stars for being thought provoking, but falling short of delivering a novel, mind-blowing message that it promised.