That structure is a telling of six stories--each one being a novella and each with its own definite style and voice, taken either from history or invented. The stories span some five hundred years in their settings and the first five are divided at their midpoints with the first halves being told in chronological order until the sixth is reached, told completely, then followed by the second halves of the other five in reverse chronological order. Hence the book's first voice is also its last.
This divided structure works very well and is even described by one of the characters, a musician, who composes a work by the name of Cloud Atlas Sextant and describes it as:
a "sextet for overlapping soloists": piano, clarinet, 'cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky?
Well, it works for me. The unique voice of each story is probably the book's most outstanding feature. Mr. Mitchell did an exceptional job with that. I especially liked the voice of the first story, THE PACIFIC JOURNAL OF ADAM EWING. It is set in 1849 and has the sound and "feel" of 19th century writing. The tone, biases, and even the spelling idiosyncrasies of the time are wonderfully reproduced, making the story sound much akin to the writings of Richard Henry Dana or Charles Darwin. The other stories do the same for the 1930's (the smartass voice of a society leech who is also a musical genius), the 1970's (reads like a screenplay for a TV mystery of that time), 2012 (contemporary, compelling, and even comic), the near future (showing an evolution in language as well as in technology), and the far future ("after the fall", with language being much degraded and most human accomplishment lost).
The other major link among the stories is the idea of reincarnation. Mr. Mitchell plays the idea subtly and only identifies one soul's reincarnation via the device of a birthmark. The rebirth of others is definitely implied, however, and the movie version does it by having the same group of actors play in each story. The whole of the book is a depiction of reincarnation and Mr. Mitchell even has his characters enunciate that theme at a few points. I think the character, Zachry, says it best:
Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an' tho' a cloud's shape nor hue nor size don't stay the same, it's still a cloud an' so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud's blowed from or who the soul'll be 'morrow? Only Sonmi the east an' the west an' the compass an' the atlas, yay, only the atlas o' clouds.
But Cloud Atlas is about good-and-evil as much as anything. In a good story, the storytelling is made interesting by the conflicts it describes and conflict is usually between "good" and "bad" characters. But why is this so? Mr. Mitchell has his two main characters discuss this point in the hingepin sixth story, SLOOSHA'S CROSSIN'. His character, Meronym, describes a materialistic view of why there are good and bad people--the good ones can think ahead and put off their needs and so control their own wills, and the bad ones can't. Zachry provides a spiritual counterpoint in that he can see ghosts and demons and so knows there are dimensions that transcend the physical. Good and bad influences also come from that realm. He says it this way: "Meronym knows a lot 'bout Smart an' life but Valleysmen know more 'bout death."
By the time you reach the last section of the book, which is the conclusion of the first story, Mr. Mitchell has covered a lot of ground and seems to want to leave the reader with some sense of what it's all about ("life" that is). He reiterates the material view of evil in the world with one character's personal law of survival: "The weak are meat the strong do eat." Then he gives the last word to the voice he started with, Adam Ewing, which also seems to be a call to activism. After his far travels and adventures, Mr. Ewing decides how he'll spend the remainder of his years (note: Jackson is his son):
A life spent shaping a world I want Jackson to inherit, not one I fear Jackson shall inherit, this strikes me as a life worth the living.
In this statement, put down in his journal, Ewing has a moment of prescience along with his insight (the "advanced" tribe in SLOOSHA'S CROSSIN' is called the "Prescients"). It's like he, a character in the book, is stepping outside the book to comment on its sweeping epic. This complements the reincarnation theme and the forward-in-time/backward-in-time literary sturcture that amounts to a defiance of the linearity of time. Like Ewing, it leads us to step outside of time and consider what's important. What shall we do?
And so Cloud Atlas goes high on my list of all-time favorite books. It is ingenious in structure, thoughtful in tone, compelling in story, delightful in prose, and progressive in theme. It provides thoughtful readers with much to ponder in considering this time in which they are living. And maybe even for those times they have already lived, and will live.