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Review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

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.

This 1,924th post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

Review: Back Story by David Mitchell

This is another review of a celebrity autobiography. As with all celebrity autobiographies, if you’re a fan of the celebrity, there’s a high probability that you’ll enjoy the book. If not, you’re unlikely to read it anyway. That’s a point that’s made often, but that probably bears repeating.

The structure of this book is slightly novel, in that it follows Mitchell on a walk around London, with reminisces and comic riffs inspired by things he sees along the way. The idea isn’t half hammered home, though, particularly given the weakly punning title. And I think it’s fair to say that little of the content is deeply insightful: it’s mildly embarrassing to buy underwear; membership of Footlights provides a firm footing for launching one’s career in comedy; most ideas pitched to television companies don’t get commissioned; and having the same name as a popular author sometimes causes confusion.

That said, I like David Mitchell, so I enjoyed the book. The content isn’t groundbreaking, but it is at least communicated with warmth and a degree of endearing self-deprecation. And I found the last chapter, in which Mitchell discusses his relationship with Victoria Coren, genuinely heartwarming. Others have described it as overly syrupy, but I disagree – I thought it was lovely.

It’s hard to know what else to say, really. Mitchell comes across as a thoroughly likeable guy, and this is a highly readable but equally forgettable walk through a life that has been lived without all that much trauma, distress or heartache. It’s a light read that, as a fan of Mitchell, I find it hard not to recommend. But it’s hardly life-changing stuff.

Back Story is available now from amazon.co.uk in hardback and on Kindle.

This 1,915th post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

Summer Books: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Cloud AtlasA bit of a change of pace for this week’s Summer Books selection – Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, once featured as part of Richard and Judy‘s Book Club.

Confounding expectations for a book associated with a daytime chat show, Cloud Atlas soars to levels far above many of the books to be featured in this series of reviews. It has a wonderful central message, which is continually revisited and brought together nicely at the end, and the quality and style of the language over hundreds of years is spot-on.

The book is essentially constructed of six smaller books, each interrupted at a crucial moment in their story – one even midsentence – and returned to 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. Because of this, the book could have been enormously gimicky, and been very poorly written, but it wasn’t. Mictchell clearly has the amazing talent required to construct such a story of such amazing ambition, and to transcend both styles and genres.

Whilst this is a marvellous book in itself, it reminded me of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller in several respects, especially since both are essentially collections of stories-within-stories. However, whilst Traveller was an excellent novel which pushed the boundaries of the genre, Cloud Atlas is far more accessible, much more populist novel that one can just sit down, read, and enjoy, whilst still maintaining a number of worthy themes and messages. This is accessible literature, without descending to the level of Dan Brown.

Cloud Atlas is a very clever novel; in fact, it is so clever that you end up forgetting just how clever it is, and just run along with the story. There aren’t many writers about who can achieve this delicate balance of being smart whilst resisting the temptation to show off and overshadow their own story. That said, I found the first 100 pages or so quite hard going, as I tried to get used to the format of being cut-off mid-flow with no immediate explanation, and some of the stylistic leaps are large. Still, once you get into this book, you won’t come out until you’ve finished.

I highly recommend this book, and if you haven’t read it yet, this summer might be the perfect time to tackle it.

» Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is available now in the sjhoward.co.uk shop


This review was originally posted here on sjhoward.co.uk in April 2005, and has been re-versioned for the ‘Summer Books’ series of reviews published on sjhoward.co.uk and Gazette Live.

This 1,344th post was filed under: Summer Books, , , , , .

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