I was expecting to hate this book. I forced myself to try it because people had gone on about it so much, but I really didn't like the descriptions I'd heard: 500-plus pages, visions of a dystopian future, a fractured timescale with six loosely-linked narratives each nested within the previous one, and so on and so on. It just reeked to me of a self-regarding author determined to show the judging panels of literary prizes how terribly clever he was, and with no interest whatsoever in whether anyone normal would actually be able to read the thing.
Well, I was completely wrong. I thought it was absolutely terrific. Interesting, thoughtful, readable and - most surprisingly of all - page-turningly suspenseful and exciting quite a lot of the time. I thought it had a lot of thoughtful and thought-provoking things to say about exploitation and the abuse of power, and about the possible consequences of both humanity and inhumanity. The different voices are really well done, with the historic and present-day(ish) ones sounding absolutely authentic and the future ones chillingly believable both in the language they use and what they say with it. The stories are involving, occasionally humorous, sometimes sad and sometimes extremely touching. For example, the few paragraphs when a character in a train passes some of the places of his youth and sees them much changed are really affecting, I thought, even though the character himself is thoroughly odious.
I doubt whether many people, if any, will read this review among the hundreds of others here, but if you do I would urge you to try the book. Plainly quite a few other reviewers hated the book and did find it as terrible as I expected to. You may hate it too, but you won't have lost much. On the other hand, you may be surprised to find it as enjoyable and rewarding as I did. It's worth the risk - if you do find it's for you, you'll never forget it.
on 2 April 2010
With the mixed reviews, that is the question!
This is a big read. Quite long, and filled with connections, but it is very rewarding.
So, read it if you have the time and the mental energy. On holiday, for example. Do not get this book and think you can do 20 pages a night and just dip into it. It will need your time.
It will also need your patience. I found it hard to get into, and nearly gave up during the first part. Just as I was getting into the first part, it finished and the second part started and I felt like I was starting again.
But keep going and you will get to the point where it all starts to come together.
I would also suggest that you find out as little as possible about the plot. Let the plot reveal itself. Don't read the reviews that give it away and don't surf around looking for comment and insight into it. Let the intricateness reveal itself naturally.
If you have the time and patience you will find a wonderful book.
This is one of those books that has been on my book shelf for a long time and I've put off reading on a number of occasions for various reasons. It's too long. It's a Booker Prize shortlist, so it's going to be weighty. I'm not sure if I like the idea of connecting stories.
Having read it now I wish I had done so earlier.
Trying to explain it in under 300 words is hard. This is a book that is the sum of a number of parts. It is made up of six short novellas. All completely different, set in different times, written in different styles, about different things.
Each story apart from the central sixth is chopped in two. It begins with "The Pacific Journey of Adam Ewing", which is cut short at 40 odd pages by "Letters from Zedelghem", which is in turn cut short by "Half Lives", that by "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish", then "An Orison of Somni-451", then we get the full tale of "Sloosha's Crossin an Ev'rything after", then it works back down through the conclusions of the tales. The structure makes you feel as if you are witnessing something spreading out and then contracting, as the stories concertina outwards and then shrink back in on themselves. A series of Russian dolls.
Each story leaps forward in time about 100 years, the first being in the colonial days in the South Pacific, the central story in a post-apocalyptic world an undefined time in the future.
The stories are linked by the main character of each (which may a reincarnation of the previous) learning the story of the preceeding main character. Indeed it plays with the idea of communication and story telling, using the primary communication tools of the era each story is set in. Diary, then letter, then pulp fiction, then film, then hologram, then back to verbal storytelling. It is a unique and clever device, which at the same time binding the stories, sets each of them apart.
It is such a vast and wide-ranging book, and while each novella could exist on its own and within its genre, it is the combination of them that makes the impact. From the first story, where we learn about the mistreatment of natives by the colonists, to the ruined world of the last, Mitchell provides a collage of times and images that get right to the core of what it means to be human. He discusses our self-destructive nature, our greed for power, our cruelty, and the contradictions of the beauty of friendships and of hope and family loyalty.
This is a hugely ambitious book. It is a brave way of writing. It is never less than highly readable.
On the front cover there are 2 award notifcations, one for the Booker Prize shortlist and one for the Richard and Judy Best Read of the year. This perfectly describes the paradox at the centre of Cloud Atlas. Mitchell has taken the most serious of themes and discussed them cleverly using the most basic of genre tools. It is a plan that is verging on genius.
The downside of this is that he is so proficient at switching styles between the genres that he adopts, so convincing at each, that you get no feel of him as an author. Because the stories are so disparate and so faithful to the styles in which they are written there is no sense of authorial voice at all, in fact it is very hard to get a sense of the writer, he remains hidden behind the stories. But perhaps that is the whole point.
on 22 June 2004
Everything about Cloud Atlas - the elegant and allusive title, the heft of this 540-page hardback (which as well as providing food for thought, doubles as a good cardiovascular workout), the quotes and prize-tips it comes garlanded with, even the bold cover (so idiosyncratically contemporary it should achieve kitsch status within a couple of years) - says: This is a significant book.
And so it is. As you begin to read it, first your opinion rises to meet your expectations, and then continues from there. What Mitchell has done is return to the form of his first novel, Ghostwritten (1999), with a linked set of stories, but with a twist this time. The narrative is less a Russian doll than an onionskin: we get one story which is interrupted by another, and that by another, and so on as we drill through the flesh of the book. At the centre is a whole story, then we return to resume the story it interrupted, then the story *it* interrupted, and so on until the book ends with the conclusion of the story which began it.
And also! As well as having the earlier stories enclosing the later ones, within the structure of the book, Mitchell also has - fictionally and chronologically - the later stories enclosing the earlier ones. By this I mean within each story, the protagonist is aware of the story which has just been interrupted. So we have first, the journal of a Pacific explorer in 1850; then the letters home of a bankrupt young composer who is blagging his way through 1930s Europe (and who is reading the Victorian explorer's journal in its published form); then a cinematic thriller in 1970s California, a nuclear conspiracy with a hairpin or switchback on every page (in which the female lead has been reading the letters of the composer in Europe); a vanity publisher in contemporary England who is being chased by the gangland associates of a client (and who is reading the nuclear thriller as a manuscript submitted to him); then to the 22nd century where we get the death-row testimony of a fabricant in a corporate dystopia (who watches a film based on the vanity publisher's story); and finally, the central section, a far-future narrative in a Riddley-Walker-style post-civilisation age, told in pidgin English, whose narrator finds the holographic testimony from the executed fabricant, who in his world has become a prophet.
Phew. Okay. So there is much to admire here, not only in Mitchell's vast imagination - any lesser writer would have jealously hoarded these ideas to make up six novels and not splurged them all on one; clearly he has no fear of the ideas drying up, but then Iain Banks (of whose generously imaginative early work I was reminded) probably thought that too - but also in his execution of the stories. Each one is perfectly detailed and flawlessly ventriloquised. He successfully completes all of them (which was his stated intention, to reflect the frustration he felt on reading Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, where the many sub-stories all die hanging in the air). The stories have a unifying theme too, of subjugation and rebellion, deepening their superficial appeal, and also of course, we benefit from the dramatic irony of knowing the future for the human race that each character has such great hopes for in their own individual times.
I could end it there and leave you happy in the knowledge that Cloud Atlas was one of the greatest novels of our time. But that would be misleading, because much as I hate to carp on such a monumental achievement - I feel like a vandal scratching at Uluru with a pen-knife - the book is firmly flawed. As the stories break into one another, the sole connection - that each narrator is reading the story in the previous chapter - starts to seem a bit thin and gimmicky. There are attempts to bring deeper connections - two of the characters recur in successive stories, which is a good start - but they fall flat when all Mitchell manages otherwise is to have the protagonists share the same birthmark, to suggest, glibly, that they are related or reincarnated. And I thought Mitchell took a risk in starting and ending the novel (with the explorer story) and centring it (with the post-apocalyptic society: "a young Pacific Islander witnesses the nightfall of science and civilisation" - wow! Sounds fantastic, but isn't) with his least interesting and readable narratives.
I also had grave doubts about the thriller story - not that it is not very well done and highly entertaining. The problem is that, as noted before, the thriller is (it turns out) a manuscript which has been submitted to the vanity publisher: a pure fiction within the fiction of the novel. But this throws the preceding chapters - which are all, presumably, supposed to be "real" within the fiction of the novel - into chaos. If the character in the fictional thriller is reading the letters from the composer, does that make him just a subsidiary character within the thriller? And indeed the explorer whose journals he is reading? Does this even make sense? At least David Mitchell can be satisfied that, if you want to understand what on earth I am talking about when I make these criticisms, you will have to buy the book and read it to find out.
So despite its surface attractions and achievements - and they are many, and many people will devour the book joyfully and without complaint, and good luck to them - I am left with the feeling that, despite Mitchell's cumulative nimbleness, Cloud Atlas is more a trick than a book, to be returned to in parts (the composer's letters and the vanity publisher's "ghastly ordeal" were my favourite parts, both tragicomic and superb first person narratives), but not in whole, not to be lived in and loved over and over until either it falls apart or I do - which is what we want from all our books, after all.
on 22 April 2011
I received this book from somebody as part of the World Book Night 2011 project so I thought I'd give it a go.
I have just finished Cloud Atlas after taking it with me on holiday. To be honest I did not enjoy most of it. Indeed after 2 chapters I very nearly gave up on the book.
The novel is essentially six short stories with a tenuous and at best superficial link between them. The stories are written in a variety of presentations and styles and seemed more of a showcase for the authors linguistic talents and maybe his insights and thoughts on humanity through the ages rather than to engage the reader with a good story. While it may be fair to say that the authors grasp of the english language surpasses my own, I am hardly an uneducated philistine but to feel the need to run off to a dictionary at nearly every paragraph is hardly conducive to immersion. Thankfully after the first 2 chapters it becomes a bit easier going. However I still found the authors deliberate mis-spellings of some words more annoying rather than adding to the tales.
The authors choice to split the stories into halves is in my opinion more gimmickry than revolutionary (which he questions himself in the guise of his sextet). The problem is that the stories in themselves are not good enough to keep the reader hooked enough to want to continue to find out the conclusion (maybe with the exception of the futuristic tale) so thus forcing the reader to endure at least half the book before finding any gratification in how any particular story concludes. It's a bit like one of those rambling comedy stories that just goes on for too long before the punchline is reached.
In conclusion I would say that a person should read this book as an exercise in literacy exploration. If however you are looking for a good story to get stuck into, you're better off looking elsewhere.
on 31 July 2014
How do you even begin to review a book like this?
An absolutely fantastic, well written, creative masterpiece? That will have to do!
For me I cannot talk about the book without first mentioning the film based on it. It was through the movie that I cam to the book. Cloud Atlas was not received that well, and despite looking superb and boasting a stellar cast was considered average by most people who saw it. In this day and age of spectacle and action it was not surprising really. It is a film that you have to sit and watch, to concentrate on and perhaps watch a couple of time to really appreciate the complexities it holds.
I loved it, it seemed to be suited to the way my brain works and it was enough to make me want to read the source material.
The author has likened the book to matryoshka or Russian nesting dolls, each time you remove an outer layer there is another beneath. I can see what he means. Each shell reveals another until you reach the middle then put the whole thing back together again. You could equally claim it is like climbing a step pyramid. Each step takes you to the summit, before descending the other side, ultimately ending where you began.
What seems like a series of individual stories slowly becomes something more as you make your way through the words. Starting with Adam Ewing, a notary sent out into the Pacific to deliver legal documents in the (I guess) 1800's, each story moves through time, to the 1930's, the 1970's, Modern day, the near(ish) future and the post apocalyptic Earth of a distant time.
Each part is told in a different style, be it letters, Journal Entries, a recorded interview. The language changes with the time and the character, to something that is readable but has evolved from our own.
Each character is just that a character, a personality that leaps off the page, while the different stories flit within different genres keeping the pages turning with a life of their own.
Not only is each individual story gripping in their own right, the more you read the more obvious it becomes that they are linked in a multitude of different ways. From a recurring birthmark, to the use of the words Cloud Atlas, to character quirks that might be related to previous stories, and the way each story is enfolded in the next. I could list them all, but to avoid spoilers I'll just mention the first. In the second story, main character Robert Frobisher discovers a batter book, torn in two. It is the Journal of Adam Ewing from the opening part of the book.
There are also little tells, I'm aware of picking up two, but there are countless more, I'm sure waiting to be seen on second, third or fourth readings. (One I spotted is Frobisher has a seeming irrational hatred of doctors, by the time you finish the book it makes sense.)
It is a remarkable achievement of style and the imagination, well written, inventive and not in a manner that might alienate a reader. It is a story of wonder, mundane, of adventure and life, a story of what was and what might be, of lives intersecting, moving apart and coming together again through the generations, it is a story of loss and redemption, over generations. It is a book that looks seriously at the subject of reincarnation, and never once drops the ball.
For me, at least, a modern masterpiece and one of the best books I have ever read.
It is a welcome rarity when a novel is published that fulfils the secondary meaning of that word in being something daring, new and, well, novel. With Cloud Atlas David Mitchell has taken an irresistibly ambitious concept, and woven a magical, inspiring, erudite and at times visionary piece of fiction.
The basic idea is brilliantly simple. It is a novel comprising six shorter stories. Each story is set in a distinct period of history, and links with its chronological successor in a variety of subtle ways. The delicate threads of continuity are reworked at every stage, ensuring that the novel lives up to its name. Souls migrate across time and place in Mitchell's world as effortlessly as clouds drift across the sky.
It would have been easy to simply have six distinct but linked short stories, building to a crescendo in time. Mitchell eschews this and adopts a more unique storytelling method. Each story, bar the final, post apocalyptic tale which straddles the middle of the book, is split in two. Its successor begins halfway through the predecessor, only to be resumed in reverse order in the second half of the book. It might sound contrived or difficult to follow, but it is a device that lends to the whimsical nature of the story as a whole, and adds to the suspense for each individual tale.
The links between characters of the different times are strengthened as each seems to be aware of their antecedents, by way of reading their journal, their letters or seeing the hologramatic recording of their narrative. The second half of each story is only resumed when the character finds the missing half of that book, recording or stash of letters.
The above may give the impression that the structure is more important than the writing, that the book is little more than a very clever idea with little substance. What makes Cloud Atlas so successful and compelling is that Mitchell's writing is quite simply beautiful. He manages to paint six very different stories with a narrative brush wide enough to cover historical fiction, a contemporary thriller, a futuristic vision of society and a post-apocalyptic world reduced to the stone age. Each is told in a very different voice, and Mitchell has used his words to create clear motifs for each story, narrative stamps which mark each of the six tales as being as independent as they are interdependent.
And taken collectively the book manages to achieve more than the sum of its parts. Each of the stories is entertaining, but it is only in the majestic swoop, the creation of a story that straddles centuries, continents, families, friends and lovers.
This book is a flash of brilliance, as bright as the comets that serve as a motif binding the characters.
It's funny sometimes how we come to books. For this I was idly watching youTube and the Cloud Atlas movie trailer queued and then played. It blew me away. Not just in how it was themed, or the catchy tune that travels through the ages, the draw of its major stars. Above all it was the beautifully staged concept of souls existing over time and their experiences lived through human lives. The movie wasn't out yet so I bought the book and started reading that night. I'm a slow reader and it's a big book but I finished it in three long nights.
Cloud Atlas at its core is about a soul as it lives through a number of human lives over a period of time covering several hundred years. The soul's journey is told through a pyramid of different stories that cover a time from the middle 1800s through to about 2400 and then back again to the middle 1800s. Often through the stories characters pass on details to another story or a character from one story will interact in a later story. Letters, books, movies and ideologies created in one exist in others.
The themes that carry through the stories focus on the fallibility of human nature and moral. It is about man's persistent plight as it endures the internal human conflict while dealing with victimisation and exploitation. For all our awareness for humanity's darkest deeds over the ages, the guises within which they flourish become increasingly obscured and institutionalised. These themes are not preached but woven cleverly and sometimes obscurely into these captivating stories, so that you feel you discovered them and cherish their impact all the more. The narrative is never less than enthralling as we rise up the pyramid of ages and then back down again. With even the weakest story a compelling read for its clever use of the enforced captivity theme.
In contrast to the movie the book isn't sentimental and goes to some effort to avoid symbology, it's never that obvious. My only complaint is that it narrowly fails to deliver through the second half on the promise of the first. But it is a minor grizzle. Cloud Atlas is one of the greatest original novels I've read, with its only peer in this regard being Neil Gaiman's `American Gods'.
Very highly recommended.
on 21 August 2015
I really did not enjoy this book. I found it difficult to read for several reasons:
1. I just did not care about ANY of the characters. I've read other books where I've disliked all the characters (Property by Valerie Martin for example) and still enjoyed the book, but I've enjoyed the book because I've been intrigued by what would happen to the characters, even though I didn't like them. Not here.
2. The structure of the book where the different stories were arranged in halves: ABCDEFEDCBA The book is long and by the time I had got back to some of the early/later pairings I had forgotten what had happened in the start and who people were. Oh, and I didn't need it ramming down my throat about the Russian Dolls and so on. It would have worked at least as well and probably better to have run the stories as whole chapters/section, but perhaps running in reverse order - "see how we got here... 'Here' is the end of humanity - how did that happen?"
3. The language. I get that the idea was to show that language changes over time; that the English we write and speak now is different from a few hundred years ago and reflects changes in society and so on. But I found the changes in language merely distanced me from the story. The central story was so difficult to read and work out what the hell they were saying that I almost skipped it entirely. I'm still not 100% sure I know what was really happening. It was also inconsistent. If exit is to become xit, make it xit each time. If 'ight' is to become 'ite' as in night becoming nite, again, be consistent and change all 'ight'. I'm sure others found it fabulous, however, these are my feelings and I found it painful, distracting, confusing and a barrier to enjoying the book.
4. The sermonising. Almost all of the major characters at some point or another broke into a sermon about the themes of the book. Lazy writing? Shouldn't we be getting that from their actions rather than a diatribe?
All in all, I just wanted to get to the end of the book to see if it would all come good in the end (it didn't for me) and to be able to move onto reading something better. I really didn't enjoy reading this at all.
Now, I realise I am in the minority and that hundreds of people have read this and thought it was marvellous. That's fine. If everyone thought everything was the same, how dull the world would be. But please don't start a vitriolic tirade in the comments box? I am happy to accept that others love this book. I did not and would hope that others can accept that of me.
I will say at the outset that I largely enjoyed reading this book but there were times when I found it rather frustrating and annoying.
For anyone unfamiliar with this book, they need to be aware that it is a series of different stories. With the exception of the middle story, they are all cut in half and have to be read in two parts.
Part 1 is the Pacific Diary of Adam Ewing, a mid 19th Century American lawyer who is on a voyage across the Pacific Ocean. This book reminded me a bit of William Golding's "Close Quarters" and I confess that its studied 19th Century written style was quite hard to read. I dreaded having to read 500 pages like this. Part 1 ends mid sentence. I first thought that I had a faulty copy of the book.
Part 2 is "Letters from Zedelghen". I enjoyed this part of the book. It is the letters sent by Robert Frobisher to a University friend (and possibly a lover)called Robert Sixsmith in 1931. Frobisher is an aspiring composer who has been disinherited by his wealthy English family and is fleeing his creditors. He has landed himself the job of amanuensis to an aging English composer, Vivyan Ayrs (a thinly disguised version of Frederick Delius) living in Belgium. While he is there he picks up the Pacific Diary of Adam Ewing (Part 1 of the book), thereby creating a connection within the book.
Part 3 is "Half Lives, a Luiza Rey Mystery". This was also enjoyable, concerning the investigations by Luiza Rey, an investigative journalist, into possible environmental dangers caused by a 1970s nuclear power plant in California run by people who will stop at nothing to prevent the truth coming out. Her chief source is an English scientRobert Sixsmith, the recipient of the letters from Robert Frobisher. This part is a fast paced adventure story with short, pithy chapters.
Part 4 is "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish". This is a contemporary (i.e. 2000s) tale of an elderly vanity publisher who is on the run from the family of one of his clients who is a gangster and murderer. It just so happens that "Half Lives, a Luiza Rey Mystery" is one of the books he is possibly going to publish. The first half of the story ends with Cavendish stuck in an old people's nursing home that is like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in its oppressiveness.
Part 5 is "The Orison of Sonmi 541" is set in the future in Korea (I think) and we are now in the dystopian future recognisable in books by Philip K Dick and Kurt Vonnegut. It reminded me also of Logan's Run. Sonmi 541 is a "fabricant", a genetically developed female whose job it is to serve at tables. She is given the right implants to make her more human and begins an adventure that will eventually result in her execution. The distortion of language and unfamiliar names made this part almost as difficult to read as the Adam Ewing journal. Again there is a connection with what has happened before; The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is a major blockbuster movie for Sonmi 541 and her society.
Part 6 is "Sloosha's Crossin and Everthin After". This is another futuristic story, a kind of post apocalyptic tale told by Zachary, who lives on Hawaii and whose society remains in conflict with other island societies. He is visited by Meronym from another island (who appear to come from a more sophisticated society) and they visit abandoned churches and buildings from now extinct societies. It is written in a strange version of English that is initially hard to understand but becomes clearer after a while (a bit like A Clockwork Orange).
After this, each of the previous stories come to their own conclusion in reverse order.
It is a fascinating way of telling disparate stories and David Mitchell is very skilled in using a wide variety of narrative styles. However, while each story is entertaining in its own way, I am not sure that the parts add up to a greater whole. The connections for me are tenuous and contrived and I did by the end of the book find myself thinking, "so what?".
I was also a bit bothered by some factual errors that seemed a bit sloppy. For instance, when Luiza Rey quoted the line, "the age of satire ended when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize", she attributed this to Tom Lehrman rather than Tom Lehrer. Robert Frobisher mentions that Franz Schubert damaged his hands by tying weights to them; it was Robert Schumann. In Timothy Cavendish' escape, he described going through fields in which the stubble was being burned. I certainly recall stubble being burned during my 1970s childhood. However, I also know that the law changed in 1989 banning this practice for environmental reasons. They may be many more errors.
However, I don't think anyone should be put off reading this book. There is enough of it to be an entertaining and enjoyable read.