Grove Atlantic 2009
My experience reading Book of Clouds suffered slightly from skewed expectations. I kept waiting for something to happen, for the story to really kick in to gear. Each time something out of the ordinary occurred, I’d think, this is it! Now the story really begins! And then it wouldn’t, at least not in the way I expected. In retrospect, I’m probably not the first person who’s read Book of Clouds and felt this way, and this is, in part, what Book of Clouds accomplishes.
The novel follows a young woman, probably in her mid twenties, living alone in Berlin, an expat from Mexico where the rest of her family still resides. The setting of Berlin is what drew me to this book. I’m fascinated by post-war Berlin so a novel about a foreign girl living alone in Berlin was appealing to me for obvious reasons.
Beginning early on in the book there are scenes that don’t seem quite real, for example when the protagonist reflects on a memory of seeing an old woman on a train who resembled Hitler so precisely that she decided it was indeed Hitler himself on the train with her. Every time one of these not-quite-real scenes occurred, I’d expect the story to transform into something else: something with magic, or a mystery, but it never did. Instead, it was almost disappointingly realistic. A chance encounter doesn’t become a great love. Her employer, an old historian, never really opens up to her; never spills his secrets, if he has any. There’s no one hiding in the attic apartment upstairs. People and places are left behind without a fuss or dramatic parting of ways. And to me, this is what Book of Clouds was about. It wasn’t particularly hopeful, but didn’t leave me feeling hopeless either; there was an absence of expectation- positive or negative. It was, even with the magically-charged moments or dream-like scenes experienced by the protagonist, strikingly real.