"Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies," a post-apocalyptic Hawaiian says in David Mitchell's dashing novel Cloud Atlas. His sentiment echoes throughout the book, which skims through times and places—the high seas of the 1850s, Belgium in the 1930s, California in the disco age, a post-Korean empire home to genomically engineered slaves—like a stranger wandering through a used-book shop.
Six would-be novels that clang together in alternately eerie and arbitrary ways, Cloud Atlas' stories adopt their subjects' language and disposition to powerful ends. The first chapter, a triumphant travelogue in a Herman Melville mold, opens with a diary penned by an American notary sailing the waters around New Zealand. The second part smash-cuts to a Belgian composer's estate, where an apprentice dithers over letters to his boyfriend. Mitchell, an Englishman whose 2001 novel Number9Dream was short-listed for the Booker Prize, plays the insouciant mimic at the start, sketching rich characters while toying with their stylized tongues. The mannered comedies of the nervous notary and the tart apprentice (who's displeased by the prospect of "teaching prissy missies their scales and bitter spinsters their technique") could support novels of their own.
But while Mitchell's undeniable command of craft carries through further disjointed chapters, Cloud Atlas strains as it attempts to gather itself under an umbrella full of holes. As allusions sift slowly from chapter to chapter, the novel whispers of purgatory and reincarnation, hinting at the friction between freedom and oppression common to memories of the past and thoughts of the future. The conceit matches its ambition in parts, but a few wobbly chapters show the seams of an awkward welding job. A chapter about a journalist tangling with atomic espionage reads too much like the John Grisham potboilers it ostensibly parodies, and other riffs on steely science fiction and the primal mind of Fallen Man hide their gems in murky prose that's likely to make readers glaze over.
With its disparate parts established, Cloud Atlas turns around and revisits all its stories in reverse order, eking out a through-line that works wonders, when it works at all. Like its elusive map of souls, however, Cloud Atlas drifts through spotty spells and choppy weather.