Book #4: Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell


This is the only book so far on this list that I will absolutely read again. Pure storytelling magic. It put me in mind of the Tom Waits lyric, "I wanna know... we all wanna know... how's it gonna end?" I bought my movie tie-in edition at some airport bookstore or other several years ago, and I've been intimidated by it the whole time I've owned it. It felt so good to get to it, and I enjoyed it so much, that in my journal it says "I finished Cloud Atlas today and now anything feels possible."

As a storyteller, David Mitchell's operating on the magician-level of Italo Calvino (think If on a Winter's Night a Traveller), telling six very seperate stories - in some cases happening centuries apart - any of which a less extravagantly talented writer would be proud to have put out in a single novel. The six stories intertwine and overlap in ways that will leave you savouring the puzzle long after you put it down. This is a book that left me wanting to reread it on the spot - while equally compelling me to find anything and everything else David Mitchell has written (my girlfriend read The Bone Clocks last year and now I can't wait).

Cloud Atlas is a spectacular mix of old and new: it's made of ground-breaking dystopian secret-agent science fiction, far-flung apocalyptic societies, edge-of-your-seat 1970s espionage, and at the same time is as cozily old-fashioned as a roaring fire. The stories (with names like "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish" and "The First Luisa Rey Mystery") are unveiled in an intimate, brandy-snifter Victorian style, employing long-lost diaries, half-recovered manuscripts, or letters found amongst the belongings of the recently murdered.

This is a book to curl up with and disappear into. It's a high wire act. And like Calvino's If on a Winter's Night, it's a performance that's not only virtuosic, but which also glories in the very possibilities of books themselves. I turned the pages in awe, and I wanted to know (we all wanna know...) how's it gonna end? I just didn't want it to have to end in order for me to find out.

ps. I saw the Wachowskis/Tom Tykwer movie of it when it first came out four years ago and loved it. And I have nothing against movie tie-in copies of books (in fact I often kinda like them, unless that book is Cold Mountain). I'm now looking forward to reseeing and rereading Cloud Atlas.

7 comments

  • Ryan Menard

    Ryan Menard Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

    I had a similar reaction to Cloud Atlas last year. Now, having made my way through the rest of Mitchell's books, I'm waiting impatiently for him to release something new and assessing the logistics of travelling to Norway to dig up his entry into the Future Library Project.

    I had a similar reaction to Cloud Atlas last year. Now, having made my way through the rest of Mitchell's books, I'm waiting impatiently for him to release something new and assessing the logistics of travelling to Norway to dig up his entry into the Future Library Project.

  • Japhy Sullivan

    Japhy Sullivan The cliffs of insanity

    This is one of the few cases in which I prefer the film adaptation to the original book. Reading Cloud Atlas I found that I just enjoyed certain stories more than others and would end upspeeding through the ones I didn't like to get back to the ones I did. Watching, however, I never felt the least bit impatient. It's probably partly to do with the way they restructured the whole thing - you're never in any one story long enough to get bored - but I also ended up enjoying the portions that I had disliked in the book much more in the film.

    This is one of the few cases in which I prefer the film adaptation to the original book. Reading Cloud Atlas I found that I just enjoyed certain stories more than others and would end upspeeding through the ones I didn't like to get back to the ones I did. Watching, however, I never felt the least bit impatient. It's probably partly to do with the way they restructured the whole thing - you're never in any one story long enough to get bored - but I also ended up enjoying the portions that I had disliked in the book much more in the film.

  • Leah Adams

    Leah Adams Seattle

    Yes! Exactly! Ditto! Same! I won't try to sway you from your choices, but take a couple steps back into some of David Mitchell's older works as well. There's a chart floating out there that maps out the various places the characters in Mitchell's books overlap, appearing and disappearing in various guises. Black Swan Green is probably the best book written from the point-of-view of a 13 year old boy I've ever read. I really could imagine what it was like to be that boy. I think the summer we met at Keats, we discussed Mitchell on top of the bluff. I'm glad you've discovered his magic.

    Yes! Exactly! Ditto! Same! I won't try to sway you from your choices, but take a couple steps back into some of David Mitchell's older works as well. There's a chart floating out there that maps out the various places the characters in Mitchell's books overlap, appearing and disappearing in various guises. Black Swan Green is probably the best book written from the point-of-view of a 13 year old boy I've ever read. I really could imagine what it was like to be that boy. I think the summer we met at Keats, we discussed Mitchell on top of the bluff. I'm glad you've discovered his magic.

  • Corin Raymond

    Corin Raymond

    Ryan! The Norway trip sounds like the kind of mission that would make a story unto itself. I love knowing that you're a devotee, and that with every Mitchell title I read, I'm joining you in that club.

    Ryan! The Norway trip sounds like the kind of mission that would make a story unto itself. I love knowing that you're a devotee, and that with every Mitchell title I read, I'm joining you in that club.

  • Corin Raymond

    Corin Raymond

    And Leah, I'd love to go back and read his earlier stuff now - and I MIGHT have a copy of Black Swan Green - not sure - and the name of this game, for the most part, is to try and read my own books - though there IS room for small detours, library loans, etc. Even The Bone Clocks doesn't count in my 100-rules, since it belongs to Lara - but Cloud Atlas was so satisfying that it'll keep me going for a while, and I will DEFinitely being getting back to David Mitchell.

    And Leah, I'd love to go back and read his earlier stuff now - and I MIGHT have a copy of Black Swan Green - not sure - and the name of this game, for the most part, is to try and read my own books - though there IS room for small detours, library loans, etc. Even The Bone Clocks doesn't count in my 100-rules, since it belongs to Lara - but Cloud Atlas was so satisfying that it'll keep me going for a while, and I will DEFinitely being getting back to David Mitchell.

  • Corin Raymond

    Corin Raymond

    Hey Japhy, I hear what you're saying - I felt like that with Game of Thrones - I got as far as the 3rd book - and I was really enjoying it up till then - but some of the stories really dragged for me and others were more fun to be in, and eventually I left. Luckily for me, I really dug all the Cloud Atlas stories and I became utterly involved in each of them - but I know what you mean. Also, the movie was great! It's kind of a miracle that it exists the way it does, I think. The book feels almost movie-proof, but it's so good. I am never someone to say that reading a book is better than watching the movie - if it's a good movie, it's a good movie! And I believe there are always cases in which the movie is just as good - if not better - and it seems like David Mitchell was fortunate enough to see his book get matched.

    Hey Japhy, I hear what you're saying - I felt like that with Game of Thrones - I got as far as the 3rd book - and I was really enjoying it up till then - but some of the stories really dragged for me and others were more fun to be in, and eventually I left. Luckily for me, I really dug all the Cloud Atlas stories and I became utterly involved in each of them - but I know what you mean. Also, the movie was great! It's kind of a miracle that it exists the way it does, I think. The book feels almost movie-proof, but it's so good. I am never someone to say that reading a book is better than watching the movie - if it's a good movie, it's a good movie! And I believe there are always cases in which the movie is just as good - if not better - and it seems like David Mitchell was fortunate enough to see his book get matched.

  • Corin Raymond

    Corin Raymond

    ps. to all three of you - another writer (perhaps you already know his stuff) who hit me like David Mitchell did with Cloud Atlas (I tracked down his other books and read them all at once) is Michel Faber, and his novel The Book of Strange New Things. I won't tell you anything about it - just that it's on a David Mitchell-level for me. If you're looking for an extraordinary read, The Book of Strange New Things won't let you down.

    ps. to all three of you - another writer (perhaps you already know his stuff) who hit me like David Mitchell did with Cloud Atlas (I tracked down his other books and read them all at once) is Michel Faber, and his novel The Book of Strange New Things. I won't tell you anything about it - just that it's on a David Mitchell-level for me. If you're looking for an extraordinary read, The Book of Strange New Things won't let you down.

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