David Mitchell – Cloud Atlas

23Jan10

In January 2009, I was introduced to the wonderful world of David Mitchell by a friend, who lent me the surreal number9dream – a book I absolutely loved. She proceeded to lend me Cloud Atlas next, and it’s been sitting abandoned on my unread shelf for about a year now, as I’ve been reluctant to pick it up for a myriad of reasons – book bloggers everywhere rave about it calling it a favourite, it’s considerably chunky at 529 pages, and, well, it’s Mitchell’s most acclaimed book yet.

Anyhow, I finally picked it up about a week back, and rode the long roller-coaster that is this book – it’s a heck of a ride, you’re almost begging for it to finish (as, all said and done, it is a difficult book to read), but when you eventually do turn the last page, you want to experience it all over again.

The book comprises of six independent stories, that span centuries and the atlas, of which five are told in “halves,” revolving around the central tale of the post-apocalyptic future, where humans are living as savages, after The Fall. In the first set of “halves”, which goes chronologically, each story is read/seen by a character in the subsequent one. In the second set, the stories start moving backwards, so the characters end up reading/seeing the story that follows. Hence, the opening chapter of the book (the first incomplete half-story) is completed in the last chapter.

The common theme that runs through the book is the presence of a “comet-shaped birthmark” – a distinction present in the protagonist of each story. Does this suggest reincarnation? The existence of the soul across generations? Or, is that merely coincidental?

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?

The Pacific Journals of Adam Ewing {1850s} : A journal written by an American notary in the Pacific, who befriends an English surgeon as well as a stowaway Moriori. This story is cut off mid-sentence (and comes together nicely as the last chapter)…

Letters from Zedleghem {1931} : A young aspiring bankrupt composer, Robert Frobisher, goes to Belgium to apprentice with a famous composer, hoping to make some easy money, and simultaneously finding some success. Here, he discovers The Pacific Journals in the library…

Not only are there some romantic (and otherwise) twists in the tale, but, as Frobisher details his life in the Belgian estate to an old friend, Sixsmith (in the form of letters), the reader is introduced to Frobisher’s biggest work, revolutionary or gimmicky: The Cloud Atlas Sextet.

Half Lives : The First Luisa Rey Mystery {1970s} : We move across the pond for this one, where Luisa Rey is a journalist, and is focusing on a big expose on the Swannekke Island Nuclear Plant in California. Sixsmith is the scientist who gave her the lead for the story, and in time, she reads the letters written to him by Frobisher. Luisa, trying to follow in her father’s footsteps, seems to be hellbent on justice (consequentialism), even if it is at the expense of her own life.

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish {present-day} : The focus shifts to present-day United Kingdom, where Timothy Cavendish is a struggling not-so-moral publisher, but, when he is tricked into admitting himself in an old-age home, with no way out, he starts trying to figure out the best way to escape, which leads to more trouble for him. A manuscript of The First Luisa Rey Mystery was sent to him by an author, and he’s contemplating publishing it…

An Orison of Somni 451 {near future} : In this dystopia, where fabricants are slaves to purebloods, Somni 451 has ascended, and managed to develop her own personality, by acquiring immense knowledge. It’s a story about the struggle of powers, the violence that emerges and the unfortunate state of things as they stand. She’s not a partaker though, merely an observer, who recites her life-story to an Archivist. She was watching the film of Timothy Cavendish, when she was taken away…

Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After {Post-apocalyptic future} : Zach’ry is the protagonist here, in a civilisation that considers Somni god, and Ol’ Georgie the devil. Zach’ry and his family are savages, in awe of the Smarts, believing that the Soul either reincarnates or gets set to stone. Technology is a myth in this civilisation, and, the people mainly herd goats or the like, living in tribes in forests, fearing invasion and power struggles by the terrifying Kona.

This book is immense – the writing style in each of the stories changes significantly, so much so that they read as completely different stories : from Victorian formal english, peppered with ampersands and other shorthands, to pidgin english which I personally found quite annoying to read. However, each style seems to reflect the age it it set in, appropriately, as well as, the structure of each story seems to be similar to its genre. For example, the Luisa Rey mystery is written in numerous short chapters, much like an airport thriller, whereas, the post-apocalyptic narration is written as a rather long rant.

The common theme that binds these stories together soars above and beyond the comet-shaped birthmark. It’s a story about power, domination, and the ultimate quest to rule. The stories stress on the selfishness of people, and how ultimately, this will lead to the inevitable apocalypse.

Yes, the devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.

While I enjoyed this book, parts of the stories just didn’t grab me, and I was left quite unsure as to what’s going on, and how these stories are inter-linked together. Why isn’t it just a book of short stories? A much less author might have done that… or, attempted six different novels, with completely different themes. However, Mitchell, managed to tie most of the loose ends together, and left me questioning my own existence, and the power of one individual. It’s an ambitious work, but, in my opinion, Mitchell’s managed to pull it off surprisingly well.

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29 Responses to “David Mitchell – Cloud Atlas”

  1. Hmm… sounds interesting. And a little confusing. =p Would it read like six novellas, do you think?

    I’ve been hearing quite a bit about David Mitchell these days. If I do end up trying anything by him, I might wanna start with number9dream… That one sounds very very enticing. =)

    • Yep, it does read like six novellas! A much better way of putting it :)

      number9dream is fantastic – it’s almost Murakami-esque, and is set in Tokyo. Think you’ll enjoy it :)

  2. 3 deucekindred

    I agree with you there There were some parts which I loved and others which left me in the cold (The Luisa rey section meh) but the sheer scale of this book just kept me glued. So far I haven’t read anything similar to this and I doubt if I will.

    • I agree with your last sentence – it’s a one-of-a-kind book. The Luisa Rey section was alright, I thought, but, I was getting quite frustrated with the pidgin language in the central chapter.

  3. I love David Mitchell! I love this book! I thought that the section where Timothy Cavendish was admitted to an old people’s home was fantastic! I have read all of David Mitchell’s books and loved them all. I hope that his new one (released in June) is good enough to win the Booker prize this year.

    • Am planning on reading all his works before the year is out. Already have Black Swan Green on my shelf, and then it’s Ghostwritten! Am looking forward to his new book as well – going by the title alone, it sounds like an epic story!

      My favourite section was the letters, to be honest, followed by the Somni 451 interview. The Timothy Cavendish story was probably the funniest, all things considered.

  4. I didn’t realize it was a collection of short stories/novellas! That makes me feel like I could read one story at a time over an extended period of time, which is nice :-)

    • Yeah, you’ve got a point – although as the stories are split into half, keeping track of the names and characters might be difficult over an extended period of time.

  5. Ambitious review too! Not an easy structure to explain, but I read your description twice and then I got it. Wow… I haven’t read any David Mitchell yet. I have Black Swan Greenon the pile, which has mysteriously migrated to the top whilst I was reading your review, but I’m kinda wishing it was Cloud Atlas

    • One of the toughest reviews I’ve ever written. Took about forty-five minutes to figure out how to explain the book’s structure, and, it still sounds confusing!! I have Black Swan Green on my pile as well, so am looking forward to your thoughts/exchanging notes.

      Oh! You can read Cloud Atlas after… I’d actually love to know how you get on with it. I don’t think Mitchell’s writing will put you off reading more of his works. I mean, number9dream was amazing, and this was epic.

  6. *I* have got the cd of Cloud Atlas :) No no no, not the audio book; MUSIC!

    • Nice. I do recommend the book though… although, I am curious to hear the music.

      • LOL Of course I’ve READ the book! David Mitchell is my no.1 favourite author! I’ve read all his books in succession and now I’m really looking forward to his new novel that will be out in May/June. I believe it will be out in Holland first (but I’m not sure) because part of it was written as an author in residence.

        In May I’ll also be going to an opera for which he has written the libretto. As I’ve said, I’m a huge fan ;)

      • Whoops! Open mouth, insert foot moment right there.

        I’m yet to read two of his novels, but I’m looking forward to them (and of course the new novel out later this year). Think he might well become a favourite, in due course of time.

        Wow! Wish I was attending that opera as well. Bet it’ll be fantastic.

  7. I’m torn between this one and number9dream for my first Mitchell book to read. My colleague said the same thing about Cloud Atlas, that it’s rather difficult to read. I might pick up this one though as it’s probably his most famous.

    • My first, as I’ve already mentioned, was number9dream. it was set in Japan, was surreal, and I loved it enough to want to read all of Mitchell’s works. I didn’t feel the same connection with Cloud Atlas though – I loved it, but, I think if it was the first Mitchell I read, I wouldn’t go out of my way to read all his books! I don’t know if that made any sense or not…

    • I’d recommended starting with his debut: Ghostwritten (A Novel in Nine Parts). It was the first Mitchell I read and it is still my favourite (probably because I read it first ;)

  8. You read this beast in a mere week? Impressive! I liked this one, and Black Swan Green. I only read a few pages of number9dream before setting it aside, but you’ve made me want to pick it up again.

    • Black Swan Green is probably going to be my next Mitchell, so am glad you enjoyed it. Am looking forward to it now. :)

      I’d recommend number9dream very highly……

  9. 21 deucekindred

    Black Swan Green is an Excellent coming of age novel – and mitchell’s most readable novel

    • Am really looking forward to reading it in the next few months. Unfortunately, not in the immediate future, as I try to read some more “excellent” books. Plus, wouldn’t really want to read all of Mitchell in the same month, and then not have any for the rest of the year….

  10. 23 lena

    I’ve had this on my shelf for years and haven’t touched it. I keep hearing the most intimidating things about it but I think I might give it a shot. Your explanations make it sound like it isn’t as unreadable as I thought.

    • It’s pretty amazing. A little challenging (specially initially), yes, but amazing nonetheless. The spectrum of topics he tackles is mind-blowing. I hope you do give it a shot, and that you like it – a lot! :)

  11. I read the six “first halves” and didn’t bother with the latter ones. I just didn’t get on with this at all; although I liked the structure and how each narrative tied in with the preceding one, I thought it was more gimmicky than engaging and wasn’t compelled to finish it (I was reading it with a group of friends for discussion and none of us finished it; one of my friends was so vitriolic about it that he put the rest of us off).

    • It was the central bit that almost made me want to put the book down in despair. I mean, a whole chunk in pidgin? But, the rest of the book more than made up for it (in my opinion anyway).

      One of the stories – the one with the letters from the Belgian estate – has the protagonist talking about his ‘masterpiece’, Cloud Atlas Sextet. He ponders on whether the sextet is “revolutionary or gimmicky”, and I think that’s the author pondering on the book, through this medium. Might be stretching it, but, I did think that…

      Pity you didn’t finish the book – have you read any other Mitchell?

      • None… I wouldn’t say no, either, but he’s not far up on the list. We’ll see what his new book brings – if Jackie’s right and it wins the Booker then I’ll read it!


  1. 1 number9dream – David Mitchell « su[shu]
  2. 2 An excerpt. « The Observer sleeping with Mr Depression & Mr HIV

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