Jessica's Reviews > Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
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Jun 23, 08

bookshelves: modern-brit-lit
Read in June, 2008

I've never heard of David Mitchell before, so I didn't know what to expect from this book. What a treat it turned out to be! This is hands-down one of the best books I have ever read. I can't help but feel that Mitchell has ruined me for other authors. What he does with the english language is simply astonishing.

Every facet of the novel was enthralling, from its unique structure to Mitchell's incredible dexterity with words. Divided into six stories, the book goes forward in time from the 1800's at the height of British colonialism to the savage world of post-apocalyptic Hawaii, then unexpectedly, travels backward to the beginning. Each part is written in a different format and varying writing styles: journal entries from a Melville-esque main character, letters from a philandering composer, a hard-boiled 1970s New York crime novella, a humorous memoir-turned-movie within the early 21st century, an interrogation in an Orwellian state, and a tale told through the oral tradition in the post-apocalyptic future. Each style is appropriate for the time period it embodies. Mitchell proves to be an excellent mimic, embodying the different voices of the characters flawlessly.

Mitchell doesn't shy away from the meta-references (which are always fun to catch), which are planted carefully throughout the book. In "Letters from Zedelghem," Frobisher is working feverishly on a composition that exists in "fragments...with its own language of key, scale, and color." He further elaborates that in "the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order." Self-consciously, he asks, "Revolutionary, or gimmicky?"

The enduring nature of war, the malleability of history and the human cost of imperialism and prejudice are only a few of the themes Mitchell explores with thoughtfulness and sensitivity. One of the characters in the book, Isaac Sachs muses, “The actual past is brittle, ever-dimming + even more problematic to access + reconstruct; in contrast, the virtual past is malleable, ever-brightening + even more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent.”

Perhaps Mitchell chose to write the novel as a collection of documents rather than as a straight narrative in order to bring to light this observation: that as the actual past recedes into the distance, all we have are the written records and the verbal testimonies of our experiences, the closest we can get to the actual past as it once was. Constructing a narrative about the past rather than allowing the documents to speak for themselves would only add another layer of artifice to the irretrievable past.

In sharp relief to its lofty themes, the book has moments of levity; it’s even laugh-out-loud funny in certain parts, especially in “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timoth Cavendish.” Told from the point-of-view of a bumbling British editor whose cadence and style is reminiscent of Nabokov. The twists in the novel warrant mention as well; there are some genuine surprises in each story, which I won’t spoil here.

Overall, an excellent book. I highly recommend it for someone looking for something challenging and different.


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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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

Ian Heidin[+]Fisch Great review. I'd read more of your reviews, if only you'd write some more.


message 2: by Donna (new)

Donna I have this beside the bed in a pile of recent acquisitions. I bought it for the beautiful cover. I'm so glad to find out that sometimes that works. And excellent review. Makes me want to stop everything I'm doing just to read this book.


Elise Hamilton Great review, Jessica. I understand what you mean about Mitchell ruining you for other authors. That's kind of the way feel about him. Luckily there are a few wonderful others. And while I continue to use Cloud Atlas and David Mitchell as a benchmark, I'm going to recommend another poet in her own right: Arundhati Roy and her only novel, I believe (she's primarily a political writer), God of Small Things.


Jessica Ooh thanks for the recommendation! Always looking for writers who give me the experience of being enveloped by the story. I think this was the last book that I really had that feeling. :)

Eliseh wrote: "Great review, Jessica. I understand what you mean about Mitchell ruining you for other authors. That's kind of the way feel about him. Luckily there are a few wonderful others. And while I continue..."


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