Jonathan's Reviews > Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
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I can best sum up the brilliance of the novel Cloud Atlas as: a self-contained meta-fictional, layered, narrative of ambitious and epic proportions.

I read that David Mitchell came up with his grandiose plot when thinking about designing a narrative along the lines of a Russian doll. And this is precisely the manner in which Cloud Atlas has been constructed. The novel is constructed of six interlinking stories; each save the sixth is broken into two halves so that we end up with a narrative like this:

1 The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (part 1)
2 Letters from Zedelghem (part 1)
3 Half Lives: The First Lousa Rey Mystery (part 1)
4 The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (part 1)
5 An Orison of Sonmi~451 (part 1)
6 Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After (complete story)
5An Orison of Sonmi~451 (part 2)
4The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (part 2)
3Half Lives: The First Lousa Rey Mystery (part 2)
2Letters from Zedelghem (part 2)
1The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (part 2)


This all seems impressive on paper, yet any skeptic would lack credibility if they did not question whether it truly works. And that is the truly impressive thing about this novel. The multi-layered narrative does work without seeming a clumsy plot device and every story flows together neatly. The second most impressive aspect is that David Mitchell can create a poignant and beautifully scripted tale without making it tedious to read. The book is entertaining, each story proving strong on its own and as part of a whole. Mitchell transcends ordinary conventions without seeming pretentious and rather than feeling jealous at his literary power I am held in awe.

Each story is set in a different genre so that rather than reading as belonging to one particular area Cloud Atlas reads as part of a whole range of genres. The first tale is set in journal form and is a historical fiction for the reader, set in a distant past in the Pacific. The second tale takes the form of letters to a close acquaintance describing the moral failings of its protagonist. The third tale is part crime noir and part journalistic tale. The fourth story is a humorous first person narrative in the style of a memoir. The fifth tale is a sci-fi set in the future in the style of an interview (I found that this was my personal favourite narrative thread). The sixth and final tale was a post-apocalyptic tale that took elements of The Road and A Clockwork Orange, turning them into something different. This final tale was my personal least favourite to read but I can recognise how it fit into the novel as a whole.

The power of this novel is in how each of these incredibly strong stories fit together to create one whole narrative (you could almost say that this overall story was the seventh tale). The ways in which these stories link is why I call this a meta-fictional tale. Each story references past stories (whether they appear as novels in subsequent stories, or are referenced through character names and events). There is also the hint of a kind of character reincarnation across all these stories with the protagonists sharing a kind of birthmark and similar traits.

The underlying questions and challenges this book is concerned with did not slip past my attention either. This book challenges many, many concepts: it challenges our concern as readers with time, space and genre; it challenges how fiction and reality are intertwined; it challenges what it is to be human; it even challenges that literary fiction can be incredibly entertaining as well as informative and inspiring.(view spoiler)

The greatest compliment that I can give this book is that I would gladly read it again. I also now desire to read more of the brilliant combination of storytelling and writing that David Mitchell. I admit that many readers may find this challenging to grasp as a novel but once you push past the first areas of the novel it is incredibly fulfilling. Five well-earned stars for this novel and a definite feature on the 1001 books to read list.

(view spoiler)
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Quotes Jonathan 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
“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? Only Sonmi the east an' the west an' the compass an' the atlas, yay, only the atlas o' clouds.”
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas


Reading Progress

09/11/2012 page 52
9.0% "This is really, really good so far. Love the writing."
09/12/2012 page 152
28.0% "I like how there's different stories that all link to each other, it's different, but a good different."
09/13/2012 page 407
76.0% "I love the writing of this book

"Prejudice is permafrost"
Such a poignant, simple and poetic line.

"Patience's design flaw became obvious for the first time in my life: the outcome is decided not during the course of play but when the cards are shuffled before the game even begins. How pointless is that?"
An apt metaphor for this character's life in the context it was used."

Comments (showing 1-18 of 18) (18 new)

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Lauren I am so excited whenever I see or hear that anyone is reading Cloud Atlas. I LOVED it!


message 2: by Jonathan (last edited Sep 10, 2012 06:47AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jonathan I saw a few fellow Goodreaders reading it, it was on the 1001 books to read list, so...

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Lauren Plus the movie comes out in a few months... I am very interested to see what is done with it...


Jonathan Definitely, I'm wanting to get a head start before it becomes a hyped-up sensation...


Lauren Hahaha, then people will be saying "I didn't know THAT was a book!" to which I always want to respond "Of course it was a book you dummy. Perhaps you should try reading one!"


Jonathan "What's a book? Is it like one of those things on electronic screens that you actually have to interpret and like...read?"


Jonathan "Nope we actually we use paper for them..."


 Danielle The Book Huntress (Angels Weep For Goodreads) Sounds like a very interesting book!


Jonathan It certainly is and with the film coming out bound to become the new popular book to read no doubt. If ever you want to read it before the hype sets in now is the time. I think that most people will like the book but I think some may find it confusing or dislike the different stories. For me it's up there as one of the books of the year now.


s.penkevich Glad you liked this! Great review as well. I like how you saw elements of The Road & Clockwork in the middle story, now that you mention it that totally works. I agree though, that story was just 'okay' while the rest were amazing.


Jonathan Yeah I didn't think the middle story worked so well but I loved the others and how they were tied into the writing styles of other novels/authors. It was 'entertaining cleverness' on a literary scale.


Cecily I would definitely encourage you to read more Mitchell, but don't expect more of the same. "Ghostwritten" is the only one with a slightly similar structure, i.e. multiple but related narratives. "Black Swan Green" is semi-autobiographical account of teenage years in the '70s, "The Thousand Autumns of Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" is a straightforward (structurally) historical novel, and "Number9Dream" somewhat cyberpunky. However, one or two characters from "Cloud Atlas" make appearances in the others (except "The Thousand Autumns", I think).


Jonathan I wouldn't want more of the same - if it was the same I'd consider it a cheap gimmick. I just want entertaining writing that I perceive as well-written. I can see from this book that Mitchell's other work may appeal to me.


message 14: by Neil (new) - rated it 1 star

Neil Powell Well written review, 100% the opposite of my opinion though.


Jonathan Thanks Neil, it's more a personal thing with how I read the book. I approach each book and see whether I like it regardless of anything. I must admit that I do like your review. And I'm very interested in seeing my response to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay!


message 16: by Callum (new)

Callum I REALLY enjoyed this novel. I thought it was going to be too cluttered, but it managed to successfully convey a straightforward narrative with several different story archs. WTF?!


Jonathan Glad you liked the book it is really good. Mine is no where near the best review to give the book justice in comparison to what I thought of it. My friend s.penke does a really good review of it. May I recommend giving his Ghostwritten a try? I've liked all his novels but I liked Ghostwritten and this one the most with their experimental narrative styles.


message 18: by Callum (new)

Callum Definitely, it sounds vaguely similar to Cloud Atlas.


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