Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

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Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Dave Martin
Reviewed by Dave Martin
Summary: Cloud Atlas is an ambitious book for the ambitious reader. It will reward your patience, but it isn't an easy read. Characters are well drawn and complex and the writing is top notch. Read when you've time to spare.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 544 Date: February 2005
Publisher: Sceptre
ISBN: 0340822783

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A Times Educational Supplement Teachers' Top 100 Book

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell was nominated for the Booker Prize; received rave reviews and has been touted as one of the greatest reads of all time. As such, I delayed reading it for many months. After all, I was bound to be disappointed. Cloud Atlas is a novel told in six parts. Telling the tale of six radically different, yet linked lives, it is a disjointed mishmash of a book. Rather than a novel, this book reads like a collection of short stories combined by a loose connection and this is its strength and ultimately its weakness.

Covering six lives in vastly different times and places is daring, unique and refreshing as it moves away from the writer's obsession with structure, chapters and linearity. Instead Mitchell offers the reader a variety of writing styles as each of the six sections are told from different perspectives be it an unwitting American Adam Ewing, hero to a stowaway. This native is one of the last of his tribe following a genocide. There is also Somni-451, a fabricant/clone working with no rest in a futuristic Mc Donald's. Other sections of note include an opportunistic musician intent on fame and fortune at any cost and a young journalist determined to live up to the reputation of her father. Add to this an old bookseller who finds himself unwittingly in the unfamiliar surroundings of a Nursing Home and we have a wide array of characters.

As you can see, the time differences between the sections are huge and Mitchell reflects this in his varying styles. Each story is told from the point of view of its protagonist and Mitchell gives himself the task of writing in the style of that time. As such, Adam Ewing writes in the descriptive language of an intelligent man in the 17th Century whereas Somni-451 tells her tale in a monotone fashion indicative of her life in slavery. Each narrative Mitchell achieves with varying degrees of success but on the whole all six sections left me in no doubt of his ability as he crosses genres effortlessly and provides convincing settings and interesting characters to peruse.

Mitchell's characters are a very strange bunch as I found it difficult to gain much empathy for them or their various plights. Their motives seemed largely selfish and Mitchell seems to be saying that motives are not an issue as long as the result is worthwhile. The various settings however do invoke a variety of emotions with one tale leaving me angry while another filled me with a sense of justice and irony. I suppose this is the genius of such a diverse novel, there is bound to be at least one section you thoroughly enjoy and in my case I enjoyed the majority of them. My personal favourites were the Robinson Crusoe style "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" and the Bladerunneresque "An Orison of Somni-451".

Of course, such a wide-ranging novel cannot be perfect and "Cloud Atlas" is not. Undeniably, the book is an epic. Parts of it drag whereas others seem to end far too abruptly. The language makes this a heavy read at times, certainly in a particular section that is bogged down in musical terminology and history. As a result this novel is a worthy read but not all that accessible. You have to really want to read it, as its style can be off-putting. However, perseverance does reap considerable rewards.

At 544 pages this is a hefty read, you may find as I did that one section at a time is the way to go. Was I disappointed? No, but it was not what I expected. I am in awe of Mitchell's ability but he may have slightly overstretched himself here. The tales do mix together well by the novel's conclusion, but you will find yourself enjoying it more if you devote your time to one section at a time. I recommend this novel purely for its attempts to be different and its patches of brilliance, but do not expect an easy read.

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Eileen Shaw said:

I'd like to comment on the review of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas written by Dave Martin in Bookbag’s pages.

While I agree wholeheartedly with the general tenor of the review and admit that, like most novels it has its faults, I also think it has elements that are recognisable. It seems to me that every so often a writer comes along who finds a linear narrative too limiting for his oevre. He (and it is invariably a he) therefore reinvents the novel as a set of linked stories. Readers will remember Adam Thorpe's Ulverton, which has a similar fragmentary focus, with disparate stories set around a certain part of England, and Julian Barnes's book The History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters, which also uses the device of linked stories with a variety of different characters with the focus on the nature of love in all its forms. I might also mention J M Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello which takes the action into the spiritual world, mixing in lectures, philosophy and animal rights polemic, though the focus there is on what is missing from our lives. Coetzee, in common with Barnes and Thorpe refuses any easy answers to his quest.

What is interesting is that this device has moved, with Cloud Atlas from corporeal concerns to a fusing of political, environmental and historical themes across centuries and into the future. Bold, stunningly entertaining at times, meditative, searching and discursive, Cloud Atlas is a fantastic creative coup de foudre. Other reviewers have complained that the ending doesn't quite justify the high range of effects that have gone before, but I don't agree. The ending brings us full circle to the beginning, to the start of civilization and perhaps the message (if we can crudely delineate it as such) is the circularity of human endeavour. Maybe the largest lesson we need to learn is that we are at fault. The problem is man.

Cloud Atlas demonstrates the futility of human endeavour by showing us the world’s distress, its environmental disasters and its humanitarian outrages, the fitful peace, the excrescent emptiness of capitalism and consumerism and the fatal will to power that eternally brings humanity to its knees. I am not peddling any soft liberal answers, by the way, just making the observation. I think it is instructive that none of the excellent writers above have found answers, except in terms of the saving grace of individual love and the existence of free will.

Ultimately, I feel Cloud Atlas more than deserved the Booker Prize that it just missed.