Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

January 12, 2012

Plot summary (from the publisher): A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan’s California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified “dinery server” on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilisation — the narrators of Cloud Atlas hear each other’s echoes down the corridor of history, and their destinies are changed in ways great and small.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • I think David Mitchell is a tremendous writer. His prose is often very good and fun to read. It’s clear that he has talent galore, so I wouldn’t mind reading other works of his.
  • The Robert Frobisher story, the Luisa Rey mystery, and the Timothy Cavendish piece were my favorites. All of those had interesting plot lines that made me want to keep turning the pages, and I felt that Robert Frobisher was perhaps the most fleshed out of all the characters in the entire novel.
  • For me, the novel as a whole worked best when read as a collection of six discrete short stories instead of the nested stories they were intended to be.

Disliked:

  • I didn’t like the structure of this novel one bit. Sure, I guess you could say it was “clever” to break each story off in the middle, continue with the next, and then finish each one off in reverse chronological order, but I found that to be annoying. The structure itself became more prominent than the stories, which should never be the case, IMO. Plus, there was simply no good reason to structure the story that way. It was merely for effect, which added to my annoyance.
  • The post-apocalyptic future stories were incredibly dull and monotonous. I am not ashamed to admit that I skimmed almost the entire second half of “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” because I couldn’t stand Zachry or any of the other characters in it. Ugh. And the Sonmi story was just a bit more tolerable than that. Too bad those two stories were by far the longest in the whole book.
  • I didn’t see the point of having each story loosely connected to the subsequent one via such contrivances as someone finding a previous character’s letters or reading a manuscript about a previous character. Again, that just seemed like more “look at how clever I am!” posturing rather than an organic element of the book.
  • The end of each story was rather…anticlimactic. Honestly, when I finished the book, I was rather unsatisfied that such a lengthy journey came up so short when all was said and done.

Rating:
I know critics and readers alike have mostly raved over Cloud Atlas, but I simply can’t share their enthusiasm. Though well written by a talented author, the stories lacked the kind of substance I was hoping for. This book seemed more like a technical exercise in structure than a deep, thought-provoking novel, so I couldn’t get into it as much as I had hoped to. Nevertheless, I still think it warrants 3 stars out of 5.

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