Cloud Atlas

GGD 7 IR Stellar Group | by geckzilla
by Judy Schmidt via Creative Commons

For years Cloud Atlas, arguably the best known of David Mitchell’s award-winning novels, has been floating around on my periphery in a rather irritating way. A scratch that I’ve really not known whether to itch. Bouncing up and down my TBR list for years, the Marmite reviews from friends and fellow book bloggers left me feeling understandably apprehensive. Having read and enjoyed Number9dream for book club a couple of years ago (unlike some of my fellow members) I’d long-ago decided I would take the plunge at some point.

Using my shoddy skills to even attempt to describe the, admittedly utterly unique, plot of this novel to you all is a futile task. Enter my woeful little diagram:

Capture‘Fanning’ out in 11 sections, Mitchell’s plot (that readers will find either completely rare and wonderful or totally frustrating) rides as follows :

  • The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing – (mid 19th century) lawyer sails from the Chatham Islands back home. Rescuing a native stowaway who hides in his cabin, Ewing becomes gravely ill on the journey.
  • Letters from Zedelghem – (1930s) a young musician forces his way into the home of a famous composer, begging work as his apprentice. Much naughtiness and deception ensues.
  • Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery – (1970s) A budding young journalist investigates rumours of wrongdoing at a nuclear power plant, at her own extensive risk.
  • The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish – (present day) fleeing the criminal family of one of his more interesting clients, publisher Cavendish inexplicably finds himself ‘imprisoned’ in a retirement home.
  • An Orison of Sonmi~451 – (dystopian future) the confessions of Sonmi; a clone who has become self-aware. A terrifying glimpse of our imagined near future.
  • Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After – (post-apocalypse) the narrative of Zachry, now an old man, remembering his youth on ‘Big Island’ (Hawaii). A life crushed by ignorance and poverty, plagued by violent tribes and in awe of the goddess; Somni.

What I did manage to glean after some painfully obvious clues is that the main characters of each section are supposed to be reincarnations of one another…much pondering therefore ensues on what this is exactly supposed to signify….



As much as it pains me to say it, I really struggled to get through this book and find that everyone I ask either feels exactly the same, or the violently opposite, way. How come?

This is an undoubtedly rich, complex, multi-faceted, clever and utterly unique tale; both in its content and the way it is structured. David Mitchell’s imagination is vast beyond belief and the concept striking despite its vagaries. Did I feel my mind open just a tad to his weird and wonderful adventure? I suppose so.

However, upon (finally) finishing the book I found myself asking whether any author should have to try this hard. The answer? No they shouldn’t. Mitchell’s prose is way over-complex, bordering on strained and even pompous-sounding at times. Check this out:

Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms round the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage.



All was not lost however; the dystopian ‘Sonmi’ section sang to my periodic desire for something a little frightening and apocalyptical. Fascinating, logical, political. I loved it.

That however, was pretty much my lot. Rather than keeping me intrigued, I simply found the elliptical structure to be hugely disruptive to any enjoyment, it taking me pages and pages to become even vaguely concerned with rather drab, unattractive characters before they disappeared from the story entirely. The link between them was not nearly forceful enough for me to give a damn and the climatic ‘middle’ chapter, written in an almost primitive, ‘back to basics’ language, was, by that point, far too tiresome to try and penetrate.

I’m not stupid, and this book makes me feel stupid. Boo to you David Mitchell …. Perhaps I’ll watch the film instead. It looks wonderful:

Ever had a book make you feel completely stupid? How many pages does it take for you to give up on a novel?

8 thoughts on “Cloud Atlas

  1. The only Mitchell I’ve read to date is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which, I take it, is fairly unusual for him in that it’s straightforward historical fiction. I enjoyed that one quite a bit, but I haven’t been brave enough to try Cloud Atlas. My husband liked that one and The Bone Clocks, and has also read the earlier Japanese books. My response to The Luminaries, the Booker Prize winner by Eleanor Catton, was similar to yours here: I admired the book’s complex structure, but thought that really it was a bit too clever for its own good and she could have cut out 200+ pages by just telling the story from start to finish. A book with a similar setup to Cloud Atlas that I did love was The Shore by Sara Taylor; its sections range from historical fiction to dystopia, plus it’s set in coastal Virginia, not too far from where I grew up in Maryland.


    1. ‘The Thousand Autumns…’ sounds great (historical fiction nerd alert!) and seems to get a fab write up by people whose reader tastes tend to fall in line with mine. That said, so did Cloud Atlas…..I think I need to get over the hangover before I even think about adding it to my TBR pile. Simplicity is a beautiful thing…


  2. Such a fantastic book. I’m sorry to hear it made you feel dumb. That’s never good. Either way thanks for sharing!

    If you’re ever interested in some other great inspirational tidbits and musings, be sure to follow! Thanks!


  3. Sorry to hear you do not enjoy this. I hope you enjoy the movie instead.

    If ever asked for just one ‘favourite book’ Cloud Atlas is my answer – read it years ago and absolutely loved it. Am not sure what my present day self would think if I re-read it, but I’ll never do that and have vowed not to watch the movie – am afraid it will not live up to my memories.

    PS: Your diagram is really great!


    1. Aw thanks Jo! Ha. I really had no words to express it! Am so glad you loved it even though I didn’t get on with it at all. I wonder why it’s so divisive. I’ll let you know what the film is like!


So...what do you think !?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s