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Review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell



by sjhoward

This is the 1,925th post. It was published at 12:30 on Wednesday, 12th December 2012.

I publish a book review every other Wednesday. You can browse all previous reviews here.

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Last week, I featured David Mitchell the comedian. In his book, he complains about being mistake for David Mitchell the author. So this week, I reasoned, why not feature Cloud Atlas? It’s another book that’s “now a major motion picture” – but I haven’t seen it, so that can’t upset me.

I really liked Cloud Atlas. It has a lovely central message, which is continually revisited and all brought together nicely at the end, and the quality and style of the language over hundreds of years seems spot-on. I’m not enough of a student of literature to know whether it is spot-on, but it was certainly good enough to convince me.

The book is essentially constructed of six smaller books, each interrupted at a crucial moment in their story – one even midsentence – and returned to again later. The story spans from the 1800s right through to a distant future, with each of the different small books being about a different time period, and written in the style of that time period. This sort of Calvino-esque style could have been gimicky and poorly written, but it actually worked quite well. Mitchell clearly has the talent required to construct such a story of such lofty ambition, and to transcend both styles and genres. And the unusual format is handled so deftly that it almost faded into the background once I got engrossed in the plot.

That said, this isn’t Calvino. For example, whilst If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is also a collections of interrupted stories-within-stories, Cloud Atlas is far more accessible and populist, losing all the self-referential surreal genius that makes the former a masterpiece. Cloud Atlas isn’t Dan Brown-esque, you understand – it does maintain some literary merit, and has some worthy themes and messages. It’s accessible without being trashy.

All things considered, I’d highly recommend this book. Having said that, given the massive hit it’s already been, if you were going to read it you probably already have…! I was going to suggest revisiting it over Christmas, but I’m not sure it has the depth to sustain a second reading. Still, it’s pretty good.

Cloud Atlas is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.

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