Cecily's Reviews > Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
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's review
May 30, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: miscellaneous-fiction, scifi-future-speculative-fict, mitchell-uber-book
Read from October 31 to November 29, 2012

This is definitely a book that is richer with rereading, but I still prefer his "Ghostwritten" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), which has significant echoes of this.


It’s often described as a matryoshka doll or a turducken, but that’s not the best analogy, imo.
Imagine six very different short books, each open at roughly the middle, then pile them up - and that is the structure of Cloud Atlas (story 1a, 2a, 3a, 4a, 5a, 6, 5b, 4b, 3b, 2b, 1b). The structure is echoed in this clever and very brief review:http://www.fromnought2sixty.com/final....

This is a close lifting of what Calvino describes in If on a Winter's Night a Traveler: "the Oriental tradition" where one story stops "at the moment of greatest suspense" and then narrative switches to another story, perhaps by the protagonist picking up a book and reading it.

(The structure of the film is entirely different: it cuts between all six stories repeatedly, which emphasises the parallels in the different stories. In the medium of film, I think it works quite well - if you already know the stories.)

Each story is a separate and self-contained tale, told in a different format, voice and even dialect, but with similarities in theme and some overlapping characters.


There are many themes. Connectedness (and possibly reincarnation) are perhaps the most obvious - and the themes themselves are often connected with other themes. In addition to connectedness, themes include: victim/predator/leech, journeys, escape, transformation, falling/ascending (both literal and metaphorical or spiritual).

I think the overriding theme is the many, varied, but perhaps inevitable ways that humans exploit each other through power, money, knowledge, brute force, religion or whatever: “The world IS wicked. Maoris prey on Moriori, Whites prey on darker-hued cousins, fleas prey on mice, cats prey on rats, Christians on infidels, first mates on cabin boys, Death on the Living. ‘The weak are meat, the strong do eat.’… One fine day, a purely predatory world SHALL consume itself.” This is echoed in The Thousand Autumns, "In the animal kingdom... the vanquished are eaten."

There are also connections between characters and events, and, less subtly (completely unnecessarily, imo), someone in each has a birth mark that looks like a comet.

(Connectedness is much the strongest theme in the film, partly through rapid switching between stories to emphasize the parallels, and also because the same actors are used in multiple stories.)


The opening tale concerns a voyage, and immediately draws the reader in with echoes of Crusoe, “Beyond the Indian hamlet, on a forlorn strand, I happened upon a trail of recent footprints”. Adam is a wide-eyed and honourable young American lawyer in 1850 (somewhat reminiscent of Jacob de Zoet in Mitchell’s latest novel: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), on his way to the Chatham Isles to trace the beneficiaries of a will. He struggles with the politics of the ship’s crew and issues of colonialism, slavery, genocide (Maori of Moriori) and then… it breaks off mid sentence!

This story has particular parallels with Matthew Kneale's English Passengers (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... a voyage between colonies, with a theme of exploitation.


This is a series of letters from Robert Frobisher, a penniless young English composer, to his friend Rufus Sixsmith, written in 1931 (quite a lot of sixes in this book). He has a wealthy and educated background, but has been cut off from his family, so is in Belgium (Edinburgh, in the film!), searching for the aging composer Vyvyan Ayrs, where he hopes to gain a position as amanuensis and collaborator: the journey involves literal travel, but also the seeking of fame and fortune. This section opens with a visceral passion for music, which infuses this whole section; Frobisher hears music in every event: dreaming of breaking china, “an august chord rang out, half-cello, half-celeste, D major (?), held for four beats”. Frobisher is an unscrupulous opportunist (very unlike Adam Ewing), but not without talent. The latter enables him to wheedle his way into the complex lives of the Ayrs/Crommelynck household (the latter cropping up in other Mitchell books).


It’s 1975 and Dr Rufus Sixsmith is now 66. He is broke and either in trouble with mysterious forces or paranoid. This one’s a thriller, involving a would-be-investigative-journalist, Luisa Rey. Mitchell inserts a caveat via Sixsmith, “all thrillers would wither without contrivance”, though actually much of this story is obscure until the second half.


This is contemporary comedy: Cavendish is a vanity publisher with an unexpected best-seller on his hands (memoirs of a murderer). Like Sixsmith, he ends up broke and fleeing enemies, though this one is more of a farce, with echoes of Jonathan Coe’s “What a Carve Up” (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...).


This is set in 22nd century Korea, which is an extreme corpocracy (corporate capitalism taken to its logical conclusion – which even affects the language (see below)). Purebloods are “a sponge of demand that sucked goods and services from every vendor” and it is a crime to fail to meet one’s monthly spending target. (In the film, this section looks stunning, but the underlying philosophy is largely ignored.)

The format is an interrogation of Somni-251, a fabricant (humanoid clone), who is a monastic server of fast food at Papa Song’s – which just happens to have golden arches as its logo (the film plays safe and is not so obviously McDonald's). She is knowledgeable and opinionated, though it’s not immediately clear what, if anything, else she’s done wrong. There are plenty of nods to Orwell, Huxley and others – even to the extent that Somni mentions reading them. The ideas of ascension, heaven, an afterlife and so on that are suggested in many sections are explicit in this one; it’s where the themes of the book really begin to come together. What it means to be human, exemplified by the relative positions of purebloods and fabricants, are reminiscent of the slavery that Adam Ewing considers: the idea that fabricants lack a personality is a “fallacy propagated for the comfort of purebloods”. She has a distinctively poetic voice, which lends beauty to the section of the book, but causes problems for her: a fabricant that is as eloquent as a pureblood creates unease.


The only section told, unbroken, from start to finish, which is ironic given that it’s set in a very broken future world. Even the language has disintegrated to some extent, much as in Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker”, to which Mitchell acknowledges a debt in this article:
See below for specific linguistic quirks, and here for my review of RW: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/....

Zachry is explaining his life, beliefs and practices, though it isn’t clear who he is addressing (or why). He talks of “The Fall” and “flashbangin” which were the end of “Civ’lize Days”, though some “Prescients” survived on a ship which visits and barter at regular interval, but never leave anything “more smart” than what is already there. “Human hunger birthed the Civ’lize, but human hunger killed it too” – even though Malthus was revered as a prophet by that earlier civilisation.

Then one of the Prescient, Meronym, comes to stay for six months. She wants to learn and observe, but many of the islanders fear her motives. Zachry is keen to explain himself and to learn from her. His language can make him sound simple, but he’s actually quite prescient: “There ain’t no journey what don’t change you some”, which is perhaps the message of the book. The deeper question in this section is who is exploiting whom (there is also a warfaring tribe, the Kona)?


Somni’s story starts to make more sense, particularly the meaning and method of ascension and her story’s connections with Sloosha’s Crossin’ (6).


Imprisoned in a most unlikely place, Timothy hatches an extraordinary and comical bid for freedom. (It’s not quite The Great Escape.)


There is real excitement in this, though some may find it slightly confusing. When one character writes notes comparing the real and virtual past (p392-393), the levels of stories-within-stories and boundaries of fact and fiction are well and truly blurred, which is part of what this whole book is about. (Is Luisa "real" in the context of the book? She doesn't always feel it, but there is a direct link between her and another character.):

“The actual past is brittle, ever-dimming… in contrast, the virtual past is malleable, ever-brightening + ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent.”

“Power seeks + is the right to ‘landscape’ the virtual past.”

“One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments” – something this book is often likened to.

“The uncreated and the dead exist solely in our actual and virtual pasts. Now the bifurcation of these two pasts will begin.”


Will Frobisher make good – or even be good? “We do not stay dead for long… My birth next time…”


Adam lands on an island where white Christian missionaries appear to be doing good work. However, the relationship between blacks and whites (and even between man and wife) exemplify the unequal power relationships that are common to all the stories. Adam dreams of a more utopian world, though.


The two futuristic sections are notable for their language. Some people seem to dislike or struggle with this aspect, but I think it adds depth, interest and plausibility.

The corporate world of Somni-451 (5) means that many former brand names have become common nouns (as hoover, kleenex and sellotape already have): ford (car), fordjam, sony (PC), kodak (photo), nikes (any shoes), disney (any film/movie), starbuck (coffee).

There are neologisms, too: facescaping (extreme cosmetic surgery), upstrata (posh), dijied (digitised).

Perhaps more surprisingly, a few words have simplified spelling: xactly, xpose, fritened, lite (mind you, that is already quite common), thruway.

In the post-apocalyptic world of Sloosha’s Crossin’ (6), the dialect is a mix of childish mishearings and misspellings, very similar to that in Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker” (see links in the section about Sloosha, above): I telled him, hurrycane.

At times, it’s very poetic: “Watery dark it was inside. Wax’n’ teak-oil’n’time was its smell… An’ then we heard a sort o’ roaring underneath the silence, made o’ mil’yuns o’ whisp’rin’s like the ocean.” More graphically, “We’d get a feverish hornyin’ for each other… I was slurpyin’ her lustsome mangoes an’ moistly fig”!

(view spoiler)

Kazuo Ishiguro tries something slightly similar and less ambitious in his short story collection, Nocturnes

Somni is apparently a fan of Jorge Luis Borges; she has read Funes' Remembrances - a nod to Funes, His Memory, which is in Artificies.

Who has comet birthmarks:
(view spoiler)

See discussion here: http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/8...


Katy Forbes in Ghostwritten has a comet-shaped birthmark.

Adam Ewing (1)'s ship is seen in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (see 1.30 in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNpwR...)

Luisa Rey (3) and Timothy Cavendish (4) appear in Ghostwritten.

Vyvyan Ayrs (2)'s daughter is an old woman in Black Swan Green.


* I love the bathos of “cancerous suburbs, tedious farmland, spoiled Sussex… versified cliffs [Dover] as romantic as my arse in a similar hue.”

* “Implausible truth can serve one better than plausible fiction.”

* “I felt Nietzche was reading me, not I him.”

* “Most cities are nouns, but New York is a verb.” Attributed (in the book) to JFK.

* "Power. What do we mean? 'The ability to determine another man's luck.'"

* “The room bubbles with sentences more spoken than listened to.”

* “A predawn ocean breeze makes vague promises.”

* “Time is the speed at which the past decays, but disneys [films] enable a brief resurrection.”

* “Lite [sic] from the coming day defined the world more clearly now.”

* “Sunlite [sic] bent around the world, lending fragile colour to wild flowers.”

* “We [over 60s] commit two offences just by existing. One is Lack of Velocity. We drive too slowly, walk too slowly, talk too slowly… Our second offence is being Everyman’s memento mori.”

* “Once any tyranny becomes accepted as ordinary… its victory is assured.”

* “Power, time, gravity, love. The forces that really kick ass are all invisible.”

* “As dear old Kilvert notes, nothing is more tiresome than being told what to admire.”

* “Her contempt… if bottled, could have been vended as rat poison… I heard male indignation trampled by female scorn.”

* “The colour of monotony is blue.”

My review from early 2000s...

A novel comprising six interlocking tales on the theme of connectedness and predacity (few likeable characters, though certainly some interesting and amusing ones).

The idea is that souls drift through time and space (and bodies), like clouds across the sky. As one character learns the story of another, the layers of fiction meld: which are "fact" within the overall fiction?

Each story has a totally different style, appropriate to its time, genre and supposed authorship. The two futuristic ones use two different versions of English: etymologically logical, but lots of made up words; the capitalist Korean one hints at the political/corporate philosophy underlying the society (as in Orwell's 1984) and the primitive Hawaiian one has more shades of Caribbean/Pidgin and a very similar feel to Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...). One crucial but evil corporation is a fast food place with a golden arches logo - I hope Mitchell's lawyers checked that was OK!

Somewhat incestuously, a couple of main characters had a mention in his first novel, Ghostwritten (Louisa Rey & the Cavendish brothers, the latter having echoes of Coe's What a Carve Up) and the composer's daughter from this book appears in the later Black Swan Green.

Much as I enjoyed this, and think the Russian-doll, nested story structure is clever, I preferred the more subtle and less gimmicky approach he uses in Ghostwritten (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...).

Three good pieces about this on Guardian Bookclub:

* The importance of interruption: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010...

* Connections: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010...

* Mitchell talking about his inspirations: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010...
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Quotes Cecily Liked

David Mitchell
“A half-read book is a half-finished love affair.”
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell
“My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell
“Books don't offer real escape, but they can stop a mind scratching itself raw.”
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell
“One fine day a predatory world shall consume itself.”
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell
“Power, time, gravity, love. The forces that really kick ass are all invisible.”
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell
“The weak are meat the strong do eat.”
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell
“Time is what stops history happening at once; time is the speed at which the past disappears.”
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell
“Travel far enough, you meet yourself.”
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell
“Truth is singular. Its 'versions' are mistruths.”
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell
“Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Reading Progress

02/10/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-50 of 83) (83 new)

message 1: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Wonderful review. I didn't try hard enough with this book, but I will.

message 2: by Judy (new)

Judy Cecily, it sounds complex, but in a good challenge sort of way.

message 3: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Ian wrote: "Wonderful review. I didn't try hard enough with this book, but I will."

I've since re-read and loved it.

Cecily It was the first Mitchell I read, and was before I read Riddley Walker. I'm sure I'll get (even) more out of it this time.

message 5: by Hayes (new) - added it

Hayes I've been dancing around this one for years, but can't quite bring myself to it. I suspect it's the wrong kind of book for me, too stream of consciousness.

Loved your review.

message 6: by Kim (new)

Kim I'm much more tempted by this than I have been in the past, thanks to some great GR reviews, including this one. Thanks, Cecily.

Cecily Thanks for your kind words, but I'm hoping to write a shiny, new, improved review when I've finished my reread.

It is a fascinating book, though the novelty of the structure means that Mitchell's skill with language is more easily overlooked than in some of his other books. That said, each section is written in its own, distinct, style, which is a linguistic achievement in its own right.

Travelling Sunny Beautiful review, Cecily!

Cecily Thanks, but this is the old review. I finished rereading last night, but probably won't get time to rewrite until the weekend.

Cecily Only 5 weeks later than promised. ;)

Chanel Earl So, did you see the movie? If so, would you recommend it?

Cecily The film isn't released in the UK for another six weeks or so! But I plan to see it.

message 13: by Gary (new)

Gary  the Bookworm It sounds a bit daunting. If I ever finish Infinite Jest, I'll try it- with your terrific review as my guide.

Cecily Don't be daunted! Knowing the structure helps, and as long as you're prepared to trust the writer and not understand everything at first, there is much to enjoyment to be had. In some ways, the fact it's broken down into eleven sections might make it less daunting than a single narrative of the same length.

Steve Excellent recap, Cecily. I like the added content here -- it's interesting, insightful, and from what I recall of this wonderful book, exactly right.

message 16: by Ken (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ken I just ordered a copy of Ghostwritten, which is also one of five endorsed by Pico Iyer here:


message 17: by Jana (new) - added it

Jana Wow, Cecily, what an EPIC review! :)

message 18: by Traveller (new) - added it

Traveller I didn't like the start of this novel, but it looks like I'll must have to force myself through the first bit, what with reviews like this one to recommend the book. :)

Enjoyed your review; it looks like quite a bit of work is involved in reading this novel!

Cecily Think of it as a collection of long short stories: you are unlikely to enjoy them equally, and the whole book is arguably more than the sum of its parts.

message 20: by Traveller (new) - added it

Traveller ..but I suppose on has to read them in order, right?

Cecily Well, I suppose you don't have to, but I think it probably works best if you do, especially the first time. Mind you, now you've raised this issue, you've got me wondering...

message 22: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye The paradox is that you could actually link up the two separate halves of each story and not read them in the order in which they have been presented to us.

Cecily Yes, you could certainly do that, though it would sort of defeat Mitchell's point. But heck, if that's what a reader wants to do, that's fine.

message 24: by Traveller (new) - added it

Traveller Heh, maybe i should see if it works better for me to read the first story second, and the second story first... XD

I've never been big on the Robinson Crusoe or Swiss family Robinson type of setting--maybe that accounts for some of my aversion...

message 25: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye I wouldn't suggest this for a first reading. However, I don't understand how something as sumple as this would defeat his purpose. It is more like the rejoining of the island and the trees at the end of Dr Dolittle. Mitchell's pointd were more extensive than disjunction. They're also about connections and conjunction.

Cecily Not perhaps defeat his purpose, but his intended effect. But as I said, now it's been suggested, I'm quite tempted by the idea of doing a reread in a completely different way. As you say, there is a certain neatness, given that connectedness is one of the themes.

message 27: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye I always loved your perfect description of the structure of the novel in the first paragraph, although I was not concious of this as a first time reader untl halway through.

Cecily Thanks, Ian. However, I'm not sure if I came up with it, or if it was already knocking around in the back of my mind from someone/where else.

message 29: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye I haven't reread the whole of your review, but I infer you have now seen the film. Have you reviewed it or discussed it anywhere?

I'll be seeing it in about an hour.

message 30: by Cecily (last edited Feb 28, 2013 12:06AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Cecily I have now seen the film, and not discussed it at length on GR. Overall, I enjoyed it and think it was quite a good adaptation.

Yes, it changed things (which is fine in principle: a different medium has different requirements). The most noticeable difference is the structure: instead of a stack of open stories, it intercuts frequently and rapidly between them. That must be confusing for those who haven't read the book, but it certainly emphasizes the parallels in plot, but coupled with using the same actors in most of the stories, this emphasis is somewhat at the expense of some of the other themes.

There are various omissions and changes, but think the oddest is changing who has the comet birthmark in Sloosha's - and I have no idea why that change was made. If, when you've seen the film, you figure it out, please let me know!

I hope you enjoy the film.

message 31: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Thanks, Cecily. We saw the film today and loved it. FM Sushi hadn't read the book and was impressed. I think the structure worked well. It just wouldn't have worked if the structure of the book had been adopted. It also built up to an effective climax.

It might be better to PM me about the birthmark. I didn't pick up anything unexpected.

message 32: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Sorry, I think I must have liked this before you added the film content and spoilers.

Cecily Ian wrote: "Sorry, I think I must have liked this before you added the film content and spoilers."

And now that I have, you don't like it? ;)

Anyway, thanks for the link to the discussion of birthmarks, which I've added to the review and will read more thoroughly later.

message 34: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Haha. Now I love it even more. I hadn't read the discussion closely enough to realise that you were a major competitor to it as well.

message 35: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Let me know if you solve the mystery of Halle's Comet Birthmark.

Cecily If I do, I will... but I'm not certain whether I want to. I may leave it until I see the film, probably when it comes on TV, at which time I may reread the book (possibly in the "wrong" order).

message 37: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye I might beat you.

Cecily :)

Cecily Not only have I failed in the quest Ian set, I've now been given doubts about my statement as to who had the birthmark in the first/last story, and I didn't write down where or why I thought it was him. Much as I enjoyed rereading it very recently, I'm not sure I want to do so again, so if anyone can help, it would be much appreciated!

message 40: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Birthmark discussion ahead:(view spoiler)

message 41: by Leo (last edited Mar 19, 2013 05:34PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Leo Walsh Ian wrote: "Birthmark discussion ahead:I mentioned in my review that five out of six characters have birthmarks. My notes show the pages for the five, and Wiki mentions a BBC interview with DM where he said f..."

I thought that in the Adam's story, it was the bad guy Dr. Goode (? -- think that was his name) that had the birthmark.

I think I loaned my copy of the book out, or lost it when I moved fro CA to OH last year, because I cannot find it. But that was how I remembered it...

Because it took me until Luisa Rey to realize that the mark did not necessarily make one evil. Since DR. Goode (?) was a villain. And Frobisher a fop and a con man.

So we have a soul moving from the evil Goode through the Bodhisattva Merinym (sp?).

Cecily Thanks, Ian. I've taken Adam's name out of that section of my review.

All this talk of Adam being the first... and the significance of his name has only just occurred to me!

message 43: by Warwick (last edited Jun 03, 2013 02:53AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Warwick What an interesting and thoughtful review. For some reason I didn't really like the whole birthmark motif -- I thought it made the subtextual idea of reincarnated souls too concrete and obvious. I don't know. Something about it bothers me – I'd rather have that kind of thing left unexpressed somehow.

>she has a sense of deja audio

It's actually known as déjà entendu (amazingly, this exists).

Cecily I share your reservations about the birthmark (even though it's an echo of something in "Ghostwritten").

Thanks for re-introducing me to déjà entendu (I'm sure I've heard of it somewhere before).

message 45: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Cecily wrote: "Thanks for re-introducing me to déjà entendu (I'm sure I've heard of it somewhere before)...."

Haha. It's the same old song. Reminds me of "Blood Simple".

Lit Bug The review is so thoughtful! Somehow the review is far better, more interesting than the book...

Cecily Thanks, Lit Bug, though I think the fact it's possible to write an interesting review tends to indicate the book is either very good or utterly terrible; a reviewer needs something to work with. ;)

Chris Wow. Cloud Atlas is chock-full of amazing quotes... Gotta read it again sometime.

FYI Meronym has the birthmark in the last story, but in the movie Zachry does. In the movie each actor plays different souls that are reincarnated (ex: Tom Hanks goes from Dr. Goose —> Zachry), but in the book there is only one reincarnated soul: the person with the comet birthmark. The birthmark in the movie more signifies the person who is "telling" the story for future generations to uncover. That's why it was changed from Meronym to Zachry in Sloosha's Crossing.

Cecily Thanks for that, Chris. It makes a sort of sense, but that aspect of the film was too unsubtle for my taste.

message 50: by Aditi (new)

Aditi Wonderful and graceful review!!

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