Kristopher Jansma's Reviews > Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
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Jun 11, 08


Apologies again: this book did take me a while to finish, but I got through it finally over a week ago and just haven't been able to sit down and write up my thoughts until now. I've been doing a lot of my own writing these past few weeks and it's hard to justify stopping that (when it's going well) to read or play around online...

Anyway, Cloud Atlas turned out to be one of the most phenomenal books I've ever read, but I almost gave up on it after fifty pages. If my fiance's parents hadn't BOTH been telling me that it was the best book they'd read in the past year, I think I might never have pressed through the impenetrable opening section and gotten into it. Allow me to explain...

Cloud Atlas is basically six novellas, which don't appear at all connected at first, but eventually turn out to be quite integrally linked. The first section is called The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing and, if I may give an example of why I barely made it through... this is just from the first page...

"Had the doctor misplaced anything on that dismal shore? Could I render assistance? Dr. Goose shook his head, knotted loose his 'kerchief & displayed its contents with clear pride. 'Teeth, sir, are the enameled grails of the quest in hand. In days gone by this Arcadian strand was a cannibal's banqueting hall, yes, where the strong engorged themselves on the weak. The teeth, they spat out, as you or I would expel cherry stones. But these base molars, sir, shall be transmuted to gold & how? An artisan of Piccadilly who fashions denture sets for the nobility pays handsomely for human gnashers..."

It's a completely foreign world, and the language is so intentionally dated that it becomes exceedingly difficult to penetrate, and I found that after forty pages of this, all I really knew was that this guy, Adam Ewing, was on some Pacific Island, a long time ago, and that he and his crew were somehow involved in the slavery trade. But names, places, events... all sort of blurred together. And it leaves off in mid-sentence and moves to the next novella. But as I said, I'm glad I pressed on.

Novella two is called Letters from Zedelghem and is about a young composer (Frobisher) in the early 20th century who travels to apprentice with a master composer named Vyvyan Ayrs. V.A. (as he goes on to call him) is blind and needs someone to help him write down all his music, and through the course of several letters a nice little story develops, as Frobisher begins to have an affair with V.A.'s wife and the two composers begin to collaborate on a masterwork. The language is still tough, but not as bad... mostly tricky because Frobisher likes to abbreviate things (as you might if you were writing lots of long letters to the same guy - a friend named Sixsmith.) Then, almost as abruptly, the third novella begins, but finally after 80+ pages, we begin to see why these stories are all put together.

Novella three is called Half Lives: The First Luisa-Rey Mystery and from the very start we realize that one of it's main characters is... Rufus Sixsmith! The guy who all those letters from the last novella were going to. This one is set in the 1970s in California and written in the style of a pulp mystery about an evil nuclear power plant corporation, and is not only readable, but exceptionally smooth and fun... as a good pulp novel can be. Having made it this far, I was hooked, and excited to keep going along with something a bit easier to read.

I won't spoil the book by talking about the other three novellas, but I will make one observation about the overall structure, which you could figure out just by flipping through it (as I did). After getting to Novella #6 (Sloosha's Crossin' An Ev'rythin' After) you're only halfway through the book, and Mitchell takes us back through the second halves of the first 5 novellas, in reverse order, finally ending with the second part of Novella #1, The Pacific Journal. And he does manage to cleverly explain in each case, why the previous parts left off without finishing. It's hard to explain this, but I think it's important to know going in, so that you'll have the faith to stick with him through many seemingly insane authorial decisions. Most importantly, the arrangement of the novellas and the ultimate connections between them DOES repay the reader's efforts, and ultimately I put the book down feeling my head swimming with the sensation that I had just read something completely, eternally powerful.

Books like this are rare, and while I'd say it isn't quite beach reading, I actually read the bulk of it poolside, with a drink or two to ease my anxiety over the language. By the end I was so delighted and so excited I'd been able to penetrate the language, that I wanted to go back and re-read The Sound and The Fury. I still might. But I may have to read all of Mitchell's other books first.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Keri (new)

Keri I am happy to read that you had a hard time getting into this book because I KNEW it was critically acclaimed but thought I was just too dumb to get it. Thank you! I will press on.


message 2: by Heather (new) - added it

Heather Thank you for this review, I really enjoyed it. I am have just finished the first Letters from Zedelghem and absolutely can relate to almost not being able to get through thus far. I feel exactly as you have described about the dizzying entry into this book, after reading your review I am excited to continue on. I have found the letters somewhat "poetic" and mesmerizing, so clever how it has drawn me in without me even knowing!


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