David Mitchell – Cloud Atlas

Alright, I admit it. This book has been sitting on my shelves for years and years. It was the trailer for the upcoming movie that gave me the little nudge I needed. Even though, in my defence, I was planning on reading this in 2012, as my TBR-list-competition will tell you. It took me the better part of a month and overall, it was worth it. But in the end, I did miss that little spark…

by David Mitchell

published: Sceptre, 2004
ISBN: 0340822783
pages: 529
copy: paperback

my rating: 6,5/10

first sentence: Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints.

A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan’s California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified “dinery server” on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilisation—the narrators of Cloud Atlas hear each other’s echoes down the corridor of history, and their destinies are changed in ways great and small.

The first thing I noticed about this book, and indeed the trailer, was the structure of the story. As the chapter titles will tell you, we are told six very different tales that are connected like a set of matryoshka dolls. We get half of each story, then jump into the next. Once we’re through all six story-halves, each of them is finished in reverse order. As each of the stories’ first half ends with somewhat of a cliffhanger, I could barely stop reading.

What made this novel great for me was how the stories bled into each other – in both directions, sometimes even connecting to more than one previous story – and how cleverly this was done. While it starts very subtly, the hints become more and more obvious and by the third story, you find yourself looking actively for clues as to how this story is connected to the first two. Really, David Mitchell could have written about anything. I had fun just making these connections. And by the time you reach the end, there are many.

As for the stories, I’d really have to judge each one on its own. I did not like all of them equally. Adam Ewing’s journal was terribly boring, Robert Frobisher’s escapades were a little more fun. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the Luisa Rey mystery. Timothy Cavendish’s story was at times great and at others convoluted and weird. An orison for Sonmi-451 would have made such a great story, I would have read an entire book just about her. Sloosha’s Crossin, the middle story that ties them back together was interesting and had some great moments but the language was such a challenge and disrupted my reading.

Speaking of language: Each of the stories is written in a very unique style, appropriate to the time it was written and the person telling it. Ewing’s journal from early 19th century read completely differently than, say, Luisa Rey’s story, set well into the 20th century. Perspectives range from first person narrative letters to third person, to plain dialogue. This diversity shows off Mitchell’s talent and his gift with language. Again, I didn’t like all the styles but they set the tone for each story so perfectly that I couldn’t help but be impressed.

What I’m taking away from this book is a bunch of interesting ideas and themes. Consumerism, racism, humanity, and the search for truth are all to be found here. I particularly liked how the stories progress in time and we see how the world changes when the characters from the first stories are long gone. Sonmi-541’s tale was, in this respect, probably the scariest. A corpocracy of this kind is my worst nightmare. Maybe I just reacted so strongly to it because we’re already on our way there…

My pet peeve with this novel was the ending. By the time we figured out the main idea, the way all the stories are really connected (and it’s quite obvious early on), I’ve been waiting for a big bang. I needed some sort of a revelation that I hadn’t guessed at or at least an extra chapter that gives me a little something to remember this reading experience by. But no. Mitchell simply finishes his half-told stories and that is it. I guess we can’t always have last sentences like Guy Gavriel Kay in Tigana.

THE GOOD: Great language throughout, smaller stories cleverly intertwined. It’s a pleasure to find all the clues.
THE BAD: Easy to figure out. Not all stories were equally interesting, the ending left me hanging a little.
THE VERDICT: Recommended with some reservations. If you enjoy large stories and are willing to commit, if you like fix-up novels, interconnected fiction and authors who turn language upside down, then this is for you.

RATING: 6,5/10Very good with tiny reservations

Unsure if this book is for you? Watch the trailer on Youtube.

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