Book Review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Today’s review is a little different from most. Since this book is something of a modern classic, there is already an ongoing conversation about it in critical circles. Properly engaging with this dialogue is beyond the scope of this blog post. To a large degree, rather than a review, this is a comparison of the elements I did and did not appreciate in this tremendously complex book.

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Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell coverTitle: Cloud Atlas

Author: David Mitchell

Genre: Hahaha, this book fits no genre. Several are represented, from travelogue to historical fiction to sci-fi. Experimental is the closest term.

Synopsis: Cloud Atlas begins in 1850 with Adam Ewing, an American notary voyaging from the Chatham Isles to his home in California. Along the way, Ewing is befriended by a physician, Dr. Goose, who begins to treat him for a rare species of brain parasite. . . .
Abruptly, the action jumps to Belgium in 1931, where Robert Frobisher, a disinherited bisexual composer, contrives his way into the household of an infirm maestro who has a beguiling wife and a nubile daughter. . . . From there we jump to the West Coast in the 1970s and a troubled reporter named Luisa Rey, who stumbles upon a web of corporate greed and murder that threatens to claim her life. . . . And onward, with dazzling virtuosity, to an inglorious present-day England; to a Korean superstate of the near future where neocapitalism has run amok; and, finally, to a postapocalyptic Iron Age Hawaii in the last days of history.

But the story doesn’t end even there. The narrative then boomerangs back through centuries and space, returning by the same route, in reverse, to its starting point. Along the way, Mitchell reveals how his disparate characters connect, how their fates intertwine, and how their souls drift across time like clouds across the sky.

Content to be aware of: Sadly, there is a lot in this book. Most (if not all) chapters contain some form of unnecessary and inappropriate language; several mentions of sex, including at least one instance of sexual violence; near-death experiences and, in a few cases, death; an overall depressing portrayal of humanity as a whole; elements of suspense; invented religions and negative portrayal of actual religions.

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My Thoughts

In short, there is a lot about Cloud Atlas that I did not enjoy, but there is also a lot that I appreciate despite not enjoying it. The format is genius; six nesting stories is a very impressive feat to pull off. What’s even more impressive to me is the ease with which the author switches personas and styles with each section. The characters in each story not only speak differently, they are all written in different formats. From journal, to letter, to novel (within a novel), to interview, each is shockingly different and should not work together to form a single book. Yet, somehow, they do. This truly is an incredible book.

On top of being stylistically interesting, Cloud Atlas has a message. Unfortunately, I am still not entirely sure what it is. I’m not sure how to discuss this without dropping a few spoilers, but the topic cannot be left completely untouched in this review. Ultimately, this work is a discourse on morality, politics, and life itself. It is one of those rare books which looks deeply at what it means to live as well as what it means to die. Of course, this is never stated so bluntly. It is dealt with tactfully and almost (but not quite) subtly.

I truly wish that it had not been such a struggle to get through, as I would like to read Cloud Atlas again and see what I can pick up on the second time around that I may have missed in my initial reading. There are several reasons that it took me months to get through this book instead of days or even weeks. First of all, the opening story is intentionally written with such horrid grammar that it was frustrating. I knew there was a reason for it, but I still hated reading it! Second, I struggled to adapt to the vast changes in writing style between stories in the first half. Once I passed the midway point and had a vague idea of what was coming, this became easier. Thirdly, not all of the sections are equally interesting as stories in themselves. Some pulled me in instantly, but some I had to grit my teeth and push through as they were so far from what I like to read. Finally, the vulgarity which littered many of the pages is an affront to my taste. If anyone ever tries to say that this book fits in the clean category, they are delusional or cruel. There really is no good reason for a book, especially one written with such intentionality and potentially genius vision, to contain so much cursing, disrespect, violence, and vulgarity. Better stories could have been written, and I strongly wish they had been.

My Verdict

Every good thing I heard about Cloud Atlas before reading it was true, but so was every criticism. This book is incredible, and I am deeply impressed. It is also brimming with unmediated depravity. The only way that I can recommend this book is in the context of literary study, and I am at a loss for how to rate it on a simple scale of 1-5 stars.

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Have you ever read a book that you were impressed by, but also strongly disliked at the same time? Do you agree or disagree with my take on Cloud Atlas? Let’s talk about it in the comments!

Until the next chapter,

Jana

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