K.D. Absolutely's Reviews > Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
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Apr 30, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: 1001-core, challenging
Recommended to K.D. by: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2004-2006); Booker Prize Finalist
Read from April 19 to 30, 2011 — I own a copy , read count: 1

A basket case when it comes to storytelling form: six interrelated stories (in different narrative style and different genres) happening centuries in between. If you list the chapters in sequence, this is how the relationship looks like, main themes, and how the main characters are related to each other:

1a The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (1st part) - diary - sea adventure; racism - 16th century - in a vessel Prophetess afloat the Pacific Ocean
2a Letters from Zedelghem (1st part) - epistolary - adultery; music - year 1931 - in a old English house called Zedelghem
3a Half-Lives - The First Luisa Rey Mystery (1st part) - mystery/thriller - about an undisclosed danger of a nuclear plant - 60's
4a The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (1st part) - 3rd px - comedy - rivalry in literary world - current
5a An Orison of Sonmi-451 (1st part) - recorded interview - sci-fi/dystopian; love story - futuristic
6 Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After - tribal war; father-son - ultra-futuristic
5b An Orison of Sonmi-451 (2nd part) - clone Sonmi watching a movie of Cavendish
4b The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (2nd part) - Tim has the MS of Luisa Rey
3b Half-Lives - The First Luisa Rey Mystery (2nd part) - Luisa has RF's letters
2b Letters from Zedelghem (2nd part) - Robert Frobisher takes interest on Ewing's diary
1b The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (2nd part) - setting goes back to the Prophetess with Adam Ewing surviving from a parasitic infection.

Notice the circular pattern: the narration started with the diary being written on a vessel called Prophetess then it went to 6 other settings (time and place) before going back to the same vessel afloat the Pacific Ocean.

It's a league on its own. There is nothing quite similar to it. If Scheherazade told 1001 stories, Mitchell limited the number to 6 but made his main character in each reincarnation of one person. It is similar to Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days (2005) it's just that the Cunningham novel has only one setting, i.e., New York, while this one of Mitchell has various: 1. New Zealand; 2. London; 3 & 4. US; 5. Korea and 6. Hawaii. And the fact that Cloud Atlas was published earlier (2004) makes it the original compared to Specimen Days.

This is definitely one of my memorable reads. Reasons: (1) Longer time to finish since I had to understand 6 different stories each of them in different style, genre, theme, setting (place and time) and set of characters. This for me proves the talent and versatility of David Mitchell. Who would have risked writing in a genre one is not comfortable writing about? The voice is different too. Adam Ewing used old-fashioned English that I had to open my Lexicon dictionary to adjust to his writing while I almost failed to understand the 6th story (Zachry) because of the contracted (apostrophe replacing letters); (2) The 5 stories were split into two parts with even the 1st story ending its first part with a hanging sentence about the character Raphael. You have to recall what happened in the first part of each of the 5 stories for you to understand their second part; (3) You have to pay attention to the interlink points of the 10 half stories as you progress as Mitchell's intention is for you to follow the stories through its main character in 6 persons that is made possible because of the concept of reincarnation.

My only criticism is that it seems to be too gimmicky that its message is drowned by unusual form and convoluted plot and subplots. It is like living a big mansion with many rooms so you almost don't see your loved ones anymore. It is like a big story with no meaning. True that I appreciate the effort and the novel storytelling form but at the end of the day, most of us want to either be entertained (escape literature) or our lives enriched. (meaningful literature). Although some stories are indeed entertaining (Timothy Cavendish) or emotional (Sonmi-451), others are just somewhere in between but not really leaving a mark. Adam Ewing for example tried to tell the story of Mariori genocide by the existing tribe Maori with the indirect consent by the European colonizers but it did not have the sincerity Chinua Achebe was able to deliver in his landmark novel Arrow of God. Ditto to the period adultery of Jocasta and her bisexual lover, Robert Frobisher. I felt that the danger of having the lovers discovered is not as engaging as let's say between Lady Chatterly and her lover. In short, some of the characters seem to be caricatures instead of individuals that the readers can relate with. Or maybe I was just overwhelmed by the form that I no longer have time to appreciate the characters and to fully understand the message.

Nevertheless, for this novel's original form and Mitchell's incomparable creativity as a writer, this novel deserves those stars! In fact, I feel I little guilty not clicking the last star. I just felt too unequipped to tackle a brilliant novel like this. Maybe I should go back to this book someday and give it another try. In fact, this is the first book I read where I have to write on the pages for me to remember not only each and every character but more importantly the events and the interlinks. I apologize in advance to my brother who will later read my copy. I just could not help myself.
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Reading Progress

04/19 page 46
9.0% "I am almost done with Chapter 1 but I need to re-read because I did not understand everything. Why is this in old English?"
04/21 page 87
16.0% "Part 1 - is about slavery. Part 2 - is about love."
04/22 page 145
27.0% "I did not enjoy Ch 3 as much as the first two chapters. It just feels like a Dan Brown or John Grisham story. If it is still captivity, then it must be because of battered boy Javier, Luisa moaning about her misspent life or her car (with her inside) going down the sea."
03/21 marked as: read

Comments <span class="smallText"> (showing 1-50 of 62) </span> <span class="smallText">(62 new)</span>


Lisa I *loved* this book! I loved its crazy circular structure!


K.D. Absolutely Pressure :)


Lisa K.D. wrote: "Pressure :)" Just go with the flow, it will all make sense...


K.D. Absolutely I am done with the Pacific diary of Adam Ewing. I had to read thrice for me to understand.


Nikki Pedantry/trivia: It's not in Old English, or you almost certainly wouldn't be able to read it. This is Old English. What you mean is "old-fashioned English", I think. (Even Shakespearean English is Modern English, and I think the oldest version of English in this book is more like Victorian, from memory.)


Teresa Nikki wrote: "Pedantry/trivia: It's not in Old English, or you almost certainly wouldn't be able to read it. This is Old English. What you mean is "old-fashioned English", I think. (Even Shakespearean English is..."

Yes, and another note of trivia: the English Chaucer wrote is called "Middle English."


K.D. Absolutely NIKKI: Thanks for pointing that out. Old-fashioned English is what I meant. :)


K.D. Absolutely T: And I will be reading "Canterbury Tales" soon! Ha ha. So, another difficult time coming up!


Nikki *grin* Translating Anglo-Saxon (Old English) is one of my specialities, along with Middle English and Old Icelandic. I do get a tad pedantic when people use the wrong words to refer to them. (More trivia: Old Icelandic is very very close to Modern Icelandic; it's closer by far than Old and Modern English.)


message 10: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian Vinogradus K.D. wrote: "Part 1 - is about slavery. Part 2 - is about love."

They're both forms of captivity, only one is more captivating than the other.


message 11: by K.D. (last edited Apr 22, 2011 03:02PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

K.D. Absolutely Oh dear, Nikki. You must be living a very interesting life. :)

IAN: Aha, you've got a point there. Autua is a captive in Book 1. Frobisher, in a way, is a willing captive in Book 2. Thanks!


message 12: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa I am so glad you liked this, KD. It is one of my all time favourite books because it set me on the path to reading much more interesting books.
I met David Mitchell when he was here in Melbourne and he autographed my copy and drew little pictures on the title page. He is such a lovely young man, I was quite captivated *blush*


message 13: by K.D. (last edited Apr 30, 2011 09:13AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

K.D. Absolutely LISA: You are one lucky lady! I saw his picture in the 1001 book and he seems like a good-looking dude (younger than me by 6 years)! Still young but already oozing with talent!

MP: Sorry for disappointing you. But I have also some friends here in Goodreads whose taste on books I, for sure, respect like T and Iain who rated this the same (or even lower) as I, so I guess I am not alone in this department ha ha. They are just not too vocal to express their criticism I guess. :)

Nevertheless, I congratulate myself for finishing this book. It was an arduous yet worth-the-time read.


Teresa K.D. wrote: "MP: Sorry for disappointing you. But I have also some friends here in Goodreads whose taste on books I, for sure, respect like T and Iain who rated this the same (or even lower) as I, so I guess I am not alone in this department ha ha. They are just not too vocal to express their criticism I guess. :)"

Thanks for the compliment, K.D. :) I read this pre-GR which is why I don't have a review for it, but the reason I stopped short of rating it 5 stars is that I felt the different parts -- while all interesting and well-written -- didn't cohere into a 'whole.' So I agree with your review. This was my first Mitchell, and that quibble I had with this book didn't stop me from reading and enjoying more by him!


message 15: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian Vinogradus K.D., this is not only a great review, but a great reading of the novel.
I read this before GR and I'm sure I allowed the detail of the book to defeat me (*** only), I didn't put the work into it that it deserved.
You have convinced me that I need to return to it soon.
Since joining GR, I now read with a pencil.
A funny thing happened to me on a plane trip on Thursday.
Just as we were taking off, I dropped my pencil (crucial for The Pale King).
I could hear it drop on the blunt end and bounce one or two times, but I wasn't game enough to reach over and pick it up, because the woman next to me was reading a romance novel on an iPad.
She was a bit snotty, and I could tell that she was thinking I was a technological moron with my 600 page brick and my graphite writing instrument, and didn't I deserve to drop it at TAKEOFF.
Anyway, because the take-off was so steep, my pencil rolled past the man in the seat behind me, then past the lady with the baby in the seat behind him, and I was never able to find it, it probably fell out the back door of the plane.
So I had to use little ink dots from my pen to mark important points in the novel.
You will probably be able to work out when this happened, if you read my review and reading notes.
I was going to ask my neighbour if she made notes on her iPad, but when I realised what she was reading, I assumed the only thing she could note was the relative temperature of the breath of the gallant knight on the nape of the heroine's neck.
I hope she doesn't read this though.


message 16: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Ian wrote: "K.D., this is not only a great review, but a great reading of the novel.
I read this before GR and I'm sure I allowed the detail of the book to defeat me (*** only), I didn't put the work into it t..."


Oooh, it's scary sitting on a plane these days, so crucial to choose not only the right reading material to achieve intellectual flight cred (same as street cred, but in the air) but also the right medium...
*anxious frown* Book? So last century. iPod? Audio book could be mistaken for The Carpenters or Eminem (?sp?). Kindle? Probably a romance fan, Amazon's most popular genre. iPad? iBore. Airline journal? Too badly organised to BYO. Newspaper? Media junkie.
What to do??


message 17: by K.D. (new) - rated it 4 stars

K.D. Absolutely IAN: Ahhh, I sympathize with your experience. Things can just go crazy inside a cramped cabin. I have been thinking of getting myself a Kindle or iPad but I have 1,000+ books in my tbr. When the time comes that I can't find the remaining 400+ books included in the 1001 list, I will probably get me one of those ebook gadgets. That is if those 400+ books are available in ebook form.

LISA: To each his own. The e-book readers should respect the people of the last century ha ha. Nothing beats the image of a person holding a book while sitting on a rocking chair like the silhouette of Celie in Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple! Or Celie and Nestie reading Dicken's Oliver Twist while standing on a swing! Those images would have been totally different if they were holding a Kindle or an iPad ha ha!


message 18: by Sue (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sue Nice review K.D. I skipped some of the details at the end so as to not interfere with my future reading. I am looking forward to this and now I feel I'm suitably forewarned (if not forearmed) for reading it.


message 19: by K.D. (new) - rated it 4 stars

K.D. Absolutely Thanks, Sue. There are so many details in this book that any regular reviewer will not have the capacity of spoiling the fun of whoever wants to read this book. When I started reading Ch 1 and I had difficulty understanding it, I went to Google and read some reviews. Would you believe that there is no free summary in the web? Even the Wikipedia entry is not comprehensive. The book is not included in Sparknotes too.

It is good though that you skipped some parts of my review. But I would have been glad to read something like this (my review particularly the outline) if it was my first time to read this book. That way, I would have paid attention more to the content (the story, the underlying message, etc.) instead of the form.


message 20: by Sue (last edited May 01, 2011 10:23PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sue Actually that's why I like your outline and hopefully I'll remember and come back and look at it when I finally get to reading the book for myself. I think your description will be really helpful before beginning it. It may be that once I begin to read I'll want to know more details than I do now. I'm really glad to know about the parts and their interconnectedness and the general difficulty of reading it. I won't plan on it being a quick or easy read.

My intro to Mitchell was The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet which I've read is not at all typical for him. I loved that book so I'm looking forward to trying more of his writing.


Teresa K.D. wrote: "... I would have paid attention more to the content (the story, the underlying message, etc.) instead of the form. "

Just to elaborate a bit more on what I said earlier, if the content had been 'more' connected, it would've gotten that 5th star from me. At least for me, I know I saw the content, but I thought it would've been nice to have 'more.' I guess what I'm saying is the form does trump the content -- and maybe not because you needed to pay more attention.


Teresa Sue wrote: "My intro to Mitchell was The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet which I've read is not at all typical for him. I loved that book so I'm looking forward to trying more of his writing."

I've read his last 3 novels and they were all different from each other. I love authors who can do that and do it as well as Mitchell can. I haven't read his first 2, so don't know if either of those are like any of the later ones. The description of his first sounds like it might be similar to "Cloud Atlas."


message 23: by K.D. (new) - rated it 4 stars

K.D. Absolutely SUE AND T: I was holding "The Thousand Autumns" last night in the bookstore and contemplated on buying it. I did not. Instead a bought a book by Mario Vargas Llosa. Oh well, maybe I should go back tonight and avail of the discounted price (20% off in all National Book Store Outlets to encourage people to read while its still summer school break). Thanks for the encouraging words about David Mitchell, T.


message 24: by Sue (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sue If you do get it, I hope you enjoy it half as much as I did.


message 25: by K.D. (new) - rated it 4 stars

K.D. Absolutely Sure, Sue. I have a feeling that I will like it.


message 26: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant Better late than never - lovely review! All you guys are making me want to give DM another go, having huffily dismissed him as a cleverclogs writer of puzzle books plus a writer of short stories which he then pretends are really novels... but I'm clearly wrong...

Ian - your message 18 should have been a review in itself - this is the kind of stuff us book geeks like to sympathise with.


message 27: by K.D. (new) - rated it 4 stars

K.D. Absolutely Thanks, Paul. I have not started reading another DM though. I am still trying to move on from the amazement and the dizziness (this being a challenging read) that I felt reading this book.


Stephen M Paul wrote: "Better late than never - lovely review! All you guys are making me want to give DM another go."
Do it! He's so great.

And Great review K.D. I totally felt the same about them all being reincarnations of one another. I tried to convince my friend of that, but he wasn't really following. But Mitchell being the cheeky bastard he is, buried the fact of their connection in his hardest section to read.
In the Sloosha section he writes,
"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 blowed from or who the soul'll be 'morrow? Only Somni the east an' the west an' the compass an' the atlas, yay, only the atlas o' clouds" (308).

So I see the novel as a sketching of the human race almost. People used to sit outside and draw the clouds. When enough of them over a wide range of area drew all the clouds, they'd piece them together in order to create a map of the clouds of certain days. So Mitchell is making a map of souls, crossing a large expanse of time and place. And I think it's quite beautiful if you ask me.


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

Ian Vinogradus Nice comments, Stephen. Are you going to review it?
I might give it another go.


message 30: by Sue (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sue Stephen wrote: "Paul wrote: "Better late than never - lovely review! All you guys are making me want to give DM another go."
Do it! He's so great.

And Great review K.D. I totally felt the same about them all bein..."


I haven't read this book yet Stephen but your comments have added to my interest. It's on my shelf (or in the pile) waiting it's turn.


message 31: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant Oh, here's a question - what if you're a terrible disbeliever like me - don't believe in any such thing as a soul, don't believe in reincarnation.... will this somewhat impair my appreciation of this novel?


Stephen M Ian wrote: "Nice comments, Stephen. Are you going to review it?
I might give it another go."


I've been meaning to for a while. I was thinking of reading it again then reviewing.

And to Paul, I'm not sure. The themes running through the book may not have as much personal significance. But, to figure out what he is saying in the novel is just as much fun regardless of your own opinion on what he's saying. But that's just me.


message 33: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian Vinogradus Paul, you can join me in damnation with faint prayers.


message 34: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant Ian, my prayers are so diluted you could mistake me for a homeopathic priest.


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

Ian Vinogradus That's OK, I can't tell the difference between homeopathy and a placebo, anyway.


message 36: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant I would have said that's because you have no soul! But I agree - if it walks like a placebo and quacks like a placebo, it's an expensive homeopathic preparation.


Megha Paul wrote: "Oh, here's a question - what if you're a terrible disbeliever like me - don't believe in any such thing as a soul, don't believe in reincarnation.... will this somewhat impair my appreciation of th..."

Paul, it is not really just about souls moving across time. I believe the meat of the novel are his ideas about the basic nature of human race and the ways in which it does or does not change over centuries.
Also, like Stephen said, figuring out what Mitchell was saying was the most interesting part of this reading experience.


message 38: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant thanks mp, now i have to decide which DM book to try - we have the thousand autumns of jacob de zoet which has an exquisite cover (hardback) but which a certain person in my household has deemed "extremely difficult"; but then there are the other 4. Maybe cloud atlas is the place to re-start. I had a go at Ghostwritten years ago and gave it up...


message 39: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian Vinogradus I would start with one of the first two or Black Swan Green.
BSG is probably about the childhood of someone around your or my age or in between, with a speech impediment added for extra flavour.
I haven't read the most recent one yet.


message 40: by j (last edited Jun 24, 2011 10:01AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

j i didn't think thousand autumns was difficult at all... just keep a character list handy as many of the japanese have similar names.

i think cloud atlas works even if you don't believe in the soul. the mere fact of human existence is a sort of continuity anyway (genes, progress, cause & effect), even if the individual only gets one shot at it.

i really need to write my review for this before the details totally leave my brain.


message 41: by K.D. (new) - rated it 4 stars

K.D. Absolutely I agree with mp and Joel. This is not really about reincarnation since I think Mitchell just used it to have a thread to hold the structure together. The fun comes from seeing how each part of the book connects to the previous (if you are in 1a to 6) or to first part of the hanging or halved stories (5b to 1b).

My reading buddy and I will read Black Swan Green. His pick and I do not know his reason. He is just waiting for me. However, I need to explore other others first and we will read this maybe before the year ends.

The reason why we read this first? It's a 1001 book and #1 in The Guardian list of Best Books for the last decade: 2000-2009.


message 42: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant Okay, sold!!


message 43: by K.D. (new) - rated it 4 stars

K.D. Absolutely Paul: Thanks!


message 44: by Rhisa (new) - added it

Rhisa Rey I saw Cloud Atlas when I was browsing on MSN. I want to give it a try but I can't see a copy of it.


message 45: by K.D. (new) - rated it 4 stars

K.D. Absolutely Rhisa, many of my friends got their copies from Booksale for P115. I got my copy from FB many years ago.


message 46: by Rhisa (new) - added it

Rhisa Rey Sige, magraround ako sa lahat ng Booksale! Hihi. Hindi pa rin talaga ako makakita eh. -_-


message 47: by K.D. (new) - rated it 4 stars

K.D. Absolutely Ngayon siguro dahil sikat ang book dahil sa movie, agad nabibili yan. Pero last year, marami sa Booksale shelves.


message 48: by Rhisa (new) - added it

Rhisa Rey Yeah. Kaya ko nga siya natripan basahin dahil nakita ko 'yong mga stills sa movie. Hihi


message 49: by K.D. (new) - rated it 4 stars

K.D. Absolutely Normally, ganyan lang tayong mga pinoy. Pag may sine, ibig sabihin maganda ang libro!


message 50: by Rhisa (new) - added it

Rhisa Rey Hahahaha. Pero, ang totoo, nadi-disappoint lang naman tayo.


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