Review of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

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Rating from TwistedSciFi ★★★★★ 


There is no doubt that David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a clever book. It is a work that makes demands on its readers but rewards the persistent student with a novel of breathtaking scope, one peopled with well-drawn characters and written with an exquisite, flowing prose.


The greatest challenge is its construction: six chronological novellas, spanning the nineteenth century to the far future, each of which are interrupted half way through by the next story in line. The sixth and final story is completed as a single piece and at its end the author picks up the fifth story and finishes it, and then concludes the fourth, the third, the second and finally he ends the novel by closing the story with which it began. Some, including the author, have called this a “Russian doll” structure, but to the reader it is more akin to scaling a mountain, climbing through each climatic zone to reach the peak, then descending each level until eventually returning to base.

As the reader begins the latest story both the plot and the characters of each previous story must be retained ready for its conclusion. The task is made more difficult as Mitchell adopts a different style and genre for each novella and writes using sentence construction and vocabulary suitable to the time period in which it takes place (including a derivative English in the sixth story, a post-apocalyptical tale set in the far future). This has the effect of encouraging the reader to focus on the story in hand but threatens to overwhelm the details of the one just read. This danger is alleviated by each story being linked. As the novel moves through time a character in one story is able to read a document or view a film describing the previous story; sometimes a younger character in one will appear as an older character in the next. There is a more tenuous connection involving a comet shaped birthmark and there are many broader themes running throughout concerning, prejudice, slavery, freedom and power – to name a few.

Is the novel science fiction? Story five, (An Orison of Somni-451) about a cloned fabricant ascending to independent self-awareness, and story six, the post-apocalyptic central core  (Stoosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After) most definitely are. The third novella (Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery) is a modern thriller and would only be considered science fiction by those who thought The China Syndrome to be in the genre, while the fourth (The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish) about a publisher who accidentally books into a nursing home then cannot escape, is more a horror story. The first (The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing) a diary of an American’s adventures in the Chatham Islands and the second (Letters from Zedelghem) a story concerning an amanuensis to a famous but dying composer told through his letters to an old friend,  are mainstream. However, the overall effect of this mixed genre journey from the past to the far future is one that sits comfortably within the SF label.

Is the novel the masterpiece that some have claimed? Almost. The cleverness of its construction and its beautifully written prose brings it very close, but it lacks revelation, a moment that changes one’s thinking. To the avid SF reader the plots are hardly original but their execution is superb and the characters live on long after completion. In turn it is sad, funny, suspenseful, insightful, and thoroughly enjoyable. Despite its demands on the reader the novel is a delight and should be on everyone’s bookshelf. I first read Cloud Atlas on an e-reader and then went out immediately and bought the paper book so that I could delve amongst the pages more readily. I have returned to it on several occasions and will do so again and again. If you have not yet read this novel I urge you to do so. A treat awaits you.

If you’re interested in Cloud Atlas, you’ll probably want to take a look at our review of the recent film adaptation.

Have you read Cloud Atlas or any works by David Mitchell? Please share your comments below, and don’t forget to click on the yellow stars at the top of this post to share your rating (1-5 stars) of Cloud Atlas.

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About the Reviewer:  Bruce Taylor lives in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, England and is married with two grown up daughters. He left school at seventeen, became a computer programmer in 1969 and worked in or around IT until he retired in 2011. He’s an avid reader mostly of Science Fiction.

You can connect with Bruce on Twitter.