Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell--a review


I really enjoyed David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas: A Novel partly because it was just so darned impressive. The New Yorker’s reviewer even called it “virtuosic” (which I didn’t realize was a form of the word virtuoso…but I looked it up and sure enough, it’s viable), which I think fits. The reason I was impressed with the book is that Mitchell successfully weaves together six different stories, in six different time periods, using different genres and voices, and somehow manages to keep me engaged, intellectually and emotionally. Litlove (who can be found at Tales from the Reading Room) said, “He strikes me as a risk-taking author who is nevertheless accessible,” and I have to agree completely—Mitchell has created a structurally and thematically complicated book that is still a page-turner.

Cloud Atlas takes the reader from the 19th century to an unquantified future time. The story begins with the diary of Adam Ewing, a naïve passenger on a sailing ship in the South Seas. It continues with a story set in the 1930s, told through letters from a young, talented cad of a composer to his gay lover, a scientist. Then comes a hard-boiled mystery set in the 1970s, about reporter Luisa Rey and her fight to bring the story of a crooked corporation’s nuclear wrongdoings to light. Next, in present-day England, is the tragicomic tale of aging publisher Timothy Cavendish, who is wrongly imprisoned in an old-age home and has to escape. Then comes the orison of Sonmi 451, a story set in a future, corporate-controlled Korea, in which a clone finds out that all clones are enslaved. And then, the centerpiece of the book, a story that takes place in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, about a band of people fighting off other, more savage tribes, and visited by a few, technologically superior survivors of the apocalypse. Without putting in a spoiler, I’ll say that I enjoyed figuring out the connections between these seemingly discrete stories.

There are those who have criticized the book for being contrived, or too clever for its own good, but I disagree. I found Mitchell to be a clever stylist, yes, but one who is clearly in love with language and is a true craftsman. Though the book may be clever, it isn’t empty cleverness. I think Mithcell found a way to tell an entertaining story and still examine some serious issues, like the extent to which man’s self-destructiveness is inborn and unavoidable, and the related, age-old question of free will versus self-determinism.

I’m still mulling over Mitchell’s idea that after the end of the world--even though what’s left of humanity is reduced to living in what looks like a pre-industrial tribal culture--stories, or folklore, are still the important thing, the thing that defines a civilized versus a savage society. Each main character, from each time period, somehow sends their story forward to the future, by diary, musical composition, letters, journalism, or orison (a word I love because it can be defined as oration, prayer, or testament). So through the ages, the stories people tell survive them. For me, that’s a hopeful message that I take away from this memorable book.

I’m certain there’s much more in this book that I didn’t catch on the first read, so I'll just have to read this again some day. And I'd love to hear what other readers thought...

16 comments:

Bookfool said...

I haven't read it, yet, but I have Cloud Atlas on my TBRs. I'm having trouble squeezing any of the TBR pile in between the must read ARCs, lately. Perhaps I need to work on my time management. Your review is fabulous and makes me yearn to read the book sooner. :)

tanabata said...

Excellent review! I agree that it's a book that I'd like to read again sometime to pick up on the things I missed the first time around. Also about it being clever, in a good way, but still accessible. I have a couple more of his books here that I'd like to get to sometime soon.

Gentle Reader said...

bookfool--I always need to work on my time management! I'm beginning to think I'm incapable of managing my time--it seems to manage me! But I do think the book is worth squeezing in if you can :)

tanabata--I just thought it was one of those books that was so packed with interesting stuff, I'm sure I missed something! I also have Black Swan Green on my pile, so I'll try to get to that soon...

Matt said...

Glad you enjoyed the book! I also didn't feel that the book was contrived or too clever. And I feel like I can usually pick up on that sort of thing. And I like your mention of stories passing through generations and that sort of defining civilization. I also think I need to read it again.

Dewey said...

Are you the one who suggested this in the comments of my "What should I read next?" survey? I think I really would like to read it! I'll put it on the wishlist now.

Bookfool said...

I do need to squeeze it in. Maybe I should set it out where it's obvious. LOL

tactfulcactus said...

...and I think Ghostwritten is even better.

Camille said...

OK, so now I'm adding Cloud Atlas and The Year of Wonders to my TBRs. Thanks! Isn't it funny how we get so morbidly fascinated by things like the plague? I know I'd be wanting to read the Daniel DeFoe after, too. (I know this was the Cloud Atlas post, but I'm just commenting on my whole "Shelf Life" experience at once. :)

Gentle Reader said...

matt--it's definitely one of my favorite books so far this year. Sounds like we were on the same wavelength about it :)

dewey--I may have suggested it, because I was probably enjoying it at the time :) I'd be interested to hear what you think!

bookfool--LOL. Next to the car keys?

tactfulcactus--which means Ghostwritten goes straight onto my wishlist--thanks!

Gentle Reader said...

camille--no problem, it's all the same conversation to me, anyway! I really did become fascinated by the plague as I was reading, and I can't even watch medical shows on TV! I'll let you know if I actually read the Defoe...

Eva said...

I've added Cloud Atlas to my bookmooch wishlist thanks to your review! Don't you love it when a book lives up the hype? I usually avoid books set in the future like the plague, but I think I'll make an exception. :)

Gentle Reader said...

eva--I do love it when the book lives up to the hype, and it's so rare! Also, this isn't like most futuristic things I've read--more emotionally engaging, and also it takes place over several centuries, from the 19th to the seemingly distant future...

jenclair said...

Haven't read Cloud Atlas, but loved Black Swan Green.

Gentle Reader said...

jenclair--did you like Black Swan Green? It's on my pile, and I'm hoping to get to it soon :)

Trish said...

I haven't heard of this one, but your review is very intriguing--I'll check it out. Thanks!

Gentle Reader said...

trish--Mitchell is one of those authors I found out about from bloggers, and I'm glad I found him :)