The novel starts in 1850 with Adam Ewing, a lawyer on a ship that gets damaged in a storm near New Zealand. Fifty years later, a symphony composer finds Adam’s diary on his mentor’s bookshelf. Forty years after this, the best friend of the symphony composer meets a young lady who has the same birthmark as his friend. And on it goes, six stories through time until we reach the fall of civilization and meet a goat herder with the same birthmark hundreds of years in the future.
The goat herder’s adventure completes the first arc of the circle.
We then get taken back through time, completing each story where we left off until we end up with Adam Ewing and his misadventure on the return voyage from New Zealand to California.
Cloud Atlas is one of the most innovative books I have ever read (although Jose Saramago’s “Death with Interruptions” tops it). But each story is difficult to read and some of the plots within the plot are just not that interesting. I only gained reading momentum as I read backwards through time.
I recommend reading the book if you want an innovative reading experience. I started reading it to escape the memoir genre and pesky internal questions about the business world. Otherwise, you could just watch the movie when it comes out in October 2012.