The Concertina of Time

In Cloud Atlas David Mitchell makes writing a high-wire act--brave, dazzling but too far aloft

The good ship prophetess is sailing the South Seas in the 1850s, bound for the gold fields of California, when she comes upon Bethlehem Bay, so renamed by missionaries who have ventured to the Society Islands to "civilize" the natives. When the shipmen and the emissaries of religion meet on the island,they naturally discuss (in perfect Melvillean cadences) the survival of the fittest and the plans of God. Yet all their talk of progress and a New Jerusalem has a slightly piquant air because we know what the future holds in store for them. An earlier section in Cloud Atlas (Random...