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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell

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To purchase Cloud Atlas

Title: Cloud Atlas
Author: David Mitchell
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004
Length: 509 pages
Availability: Cloud Atlas - US
Cloud Atlas - UK
Cloud Atlas - Canada
Cloud Atlas - India
Cartographie des nuages - France
Der Wolkenatlas - Deutschland
L'atlante delle nuvole - Italia
  • Cloud Atlas is being made into a movie, directed by Tom Tykwer and starring Tom Hanks, Hugo Weaving and Halle Berry; it is due to be released in the fall of 2012

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good stories, though still too much focus on pieces over whole

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 1/3/2004 Theo Tait
FAZ . 1/3/2007 Kolja Mensing
The Guardian A+ 6/3/2004 A.S.Byatt
The Independent A+ 27/2/2004 Lawrence Norfolk
Independent on Sunday A 29/2/2004 Matt Thorne
Le Monde . 22/6/2007 Raphaëlle Rérolle
NZZ A+ 5/12/2006 Jürgen Brocan
New Statesman . 22/3/2004 William Skidelsky
The NY Observer A 16/8/2004 Adam Begley
The NY Times Book Rev. . 29/8/2004 Tom Bissell
The New Yorker . 23/8/2004 .
Newsweek A 30/8/2004 Jenny Barchfield
The Observer . 29/2/2004 Hephzibah Anderson
Prospect . 4/2004 Julian Evans
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction A Fall/2004 Richard J. Murphy
San Francisco Chronicle A 10/10/2004 Tom Barbash
Scotland on Sunday C 7/3/2004 Andrew Crumey
The Spectator A 14/2/2004 Philip Hensher
TLS A 27/2/2004 Stephen Abell
The Village Voice . 17/8/2004 Jessica Winter
The Washington Post . 22/8/2004 Jeff Turrentine
Die Welt . 5/8/2006 Wieland Freund

  Review Consensus:

  Not quite a consensus, but most very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mitchell's ambition and his dedication compel respect. The novel is, essentially, a grand fictional treatise about the will to power - whether corporate or tribal, personal or consumer. (...) There is a mighty problem of tone as the novel proceeds towards its post-apocalyptic core. (...) Cloud Atlas spends half its time wanting to be The Simpsons and the other half the Bible. Even for David Mitchell, that's a difficult balancing act to pull off." - Theo Tait, Daily Telegraph

  • "Angesichts derart entwaffnender Ironie und charmanter Selbstbezüglichkeit bleibt eigentlich nur noch die wortlose Kapitulation. Dieser durch und durch perfekte Roman braucht keinen Rezensenten. Vielleicht braucht er nicht einmal einen Leser." - Kolja Mensing, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Trust the tale. He reaches a cumulative ending of all of them, and then finishes them all individually, giving a complete narrative pleasure that is rare. (...) Cloud Atlas is powerful and elegant because of Mitchell's understanding of the way we respond to those fundamental and primitive stories we tell about good and evil, love and destruction, beginnings and ends. He isn't afraid to jerk tears or ratchet up suspense -- he understands that's what we make stories for." - A.S.Byatt, The Guardian

  • "Cloud Atlas does not want for ambition, and Mitchell proves -- six different ways -- that he has the imagination and technique to deliver a fully figured world with its own language, landscape and customs. An astonishing range of textures and voices are combined to make these worlds feel real. Mitchell seems able to write in any genre, to throw his voice into anyone or anything. An exorbitant artistic effort has yielded an overwhelming literary creation." - Lawrence Norfolk, The Independent

  • "This novel will woo those who are delighted by historical novels, and yet it also works as a form of hypertext, albeit one where you have to turn the page rather than click on a word to jump to an alternative world and narrative. I would say this is the novel stretched as far as it can go, but Mitchell would probably consider this a challenge." - Matt Thorne, Independent on Sunday

  • "La vitalité de sa démarche, son audace et son ambition laissent pantois." - Raphaëlle Rérolle, Le Monde

  • "Der Wolkenatlas ist zweifellos einer der bemerkenswertesten und intelligentesten Romane des Jahrzehnts. (...) Mitchell gelingt die heikle Balance, diese literarischen Formen zu imitieren, zu parodieren und sie als historisch typische, ihre Epoche entlarvende Ausdrucksweisen gleichzeitig bitter ernst zu nehmen." - Jürgen Brocan, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "The effect is dizzying. The reader is flung forward in time and then propelled backwards to the point from which he departed. Yet Mitchell's aim is not principally to bamboozle. The six narratives of Cloud Atlas vary significantly in style and tone, but they are animated by a single theme -- mankind's capacity for cruelty, rapaciousness and violence. (...) In Cloud Atlas, it is certainly the how, and not the what, that is enthralling." - William Skidelsky, New Statesman

  • "I hope Cloud Atlas will be spared knee-jerk reaction against "tricksy devices," and not merely because Mr. Mitchell is a prodigiously talented writer. The book works: The elaborate structure enacts a theory of history thatís part of the novelís core meaning; the stop-and-go narrative reveals itself as a continuous cycle; the separate stories achieve a weird unity; and what seemed at first mere cleverness begins to look like wisdom." - Adam Begley, The New York Observer

  • "Taken as a whole, Cloud Atlas seeks to give the novel a steely new rigging of the possible. It is an impressive achievement. Unfortunately, impressive is usually all that it is. (...) The novel is frustrating not because it is too smart but because it is not nearly as smart as its author." - Tom Bissell, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Only after this do the second halves of the stories fall into place, pulling the novelís themes into focus: the ease with which one group enslaves another, and the constant rewriting of the past by those who control the present." - The New Yorker

  • "He seduces you with his compelling characters and their narratives, and just as you're hooked on one story, he yanks the rug out from beneath your feet. Though it's hard to let go of one tale, it's thrilling to get immersed in the next." - Jenny Barchfield, Newsweek

  • "(H)is is a Rubik's cube structure that repays closer attention with still more puzzlement, until no detail seems accidental, no turn of phrase incidental, and the novel's texts thrum with distant echoes of one another." - Hephzibah Anderson, The Observer

  • "Dazzled though I was by Cloud Atlas, I wasn't moved. The effect of its brilliance is to draw attention to the cleverness of the structure, but a story's ultimate value to readers is only minimally related to the technical elements of construction." - Julian Evans, Prospect

  • "This book gives the reader full value and then some. (...) Mitchell traverses narrative modes and styles accessibly, carrying out the idea of the evil of domination, in the process satirizing our corporate world and its greed." - Richard J. Murphy, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "David Mitchell's new novel, Cloud Atlas, is a remarkable achievement, a frightening, beautiful, funny, wildly inventive, elaborately conceived tour de force. (...) What saves the book from gimmickry, though, is how deeply imagined the worlds of this book are." - Tom Barbash, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "(O)ne strongly suspects that Cloud Atlas is really a bunch of unrelated short stories that have been spliced and lightly fiddled with in order to make them look like a novel. Scratch the surface and the virtuoso style peels away to reveal little underneath. (...) Mitchell shows himself in Cloud Atlas to be a highly gifted stylist and a writer of considerable intelligence and imagination. It is a pity that his baggy monster of a book is so much less than the sum of its parts, since many of those parts are truly excellent." - Andrew Crumey, Scotland on Sunday

  • "Cloud Atlas is a tremendous novel, but Iím not entirely sure why. (...) Cloud Atlas is one of the most shamelessly exciting books imaginable, exciting as much in its intellectual novelty as in its frequent resort to the tone of a sensational pot- boiler. Mitchell is a novelist who knows exactly what he is doing, and one who is always one or two steps ahead of the reader; and at the end it seems to evaporate like the best dream you ever had." - Philip Hensher, The Spectator

  • "Cloud Atlas offers throughout an expectedly extravagant and thoroughly enjoyable compendium of narrative moments.(...) Cloud Atlas , far more than "hippie-druggy new age" posturing, is simply an affecting achievement of the imagination, of the will to narrative power." - Stephen Abell, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Indeed, once Cloud Atlas reaches its halfway point, it begins falling into sixfold lockstep with the generic demands of third-act resolution -- each strand eventually ties itself into a neat bow of explain-it-all confrontation and/or death-defying great escape. (Two denouements in particular could have been processed at the Robert McKee factory.) But so long as the heads are still popping off Mitchell's Russian doll like champagne corks, his novel glows with a fizzy, dizzy energy, pregnant with possibility" - Jessica Winter, The Village Voice

  • "Cloud Atlas is a work of fiction, ultimately, about the myriad misuses of fiction: the seductive lies told by grifters, CEOs, politicians and others in the service of expanding empires and maintaining power." - Jeff Turrentine, The Washington Post

  • "Ganz gleich also, was er tut -- ob er prägt, plottet oder parodiert: David Mitchell ist maßlos kreativ, und wer sich am schieren Funktionieren zu erfreuen vermag, am Wunderuhrwerk dieses Romans mit seinen zahllosen großen, kleinen und kleinsten Zahnrädern, kann gar nicht anders als 'Na sowas !' zu rufen. Die andere mögliche Reaktion: ein eher genervtes 'Na und ?' Virtuosität allein ist schließlich nicht alles" - Wieland Freund, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The novel is constructed like the "sextet with overlapping soloists" of the same name composed by one of the characters in Cloud Atlas. "Revolutionary or gimmicky ?" the composer asks about his music-piece, and the author (and readers) of the novel might well do the same. The answer is simple -- no question that the book is more gimmicky than revolutionary -- but that's not a hard knock against it.
       Mitchell's two previous novels were also episodic, consisting of disparate but in some way(s) interconnected fictions. Cloud Atlas is an impressive advance on these. Both the writing and story-telling -- uneven in the previous efforts -- are consistently sound in Cloud Atlas, with Mitchell having markedly matured as a writer. In this book, too, he still prefers to play with form rather than worry about producing a full-fledged novel, but the parts (and the connexions) are impressive enough to make it a very worthwhile read.
       The book is divided into eleven sections. Each of the first six focusses on a single character, and in most that character narrates his or her story directly (in a journal, in letters, in an interview). The first tells of a nineteenth-century Pacific voyage, the next jumps ahead to Belgium in the early 1930s, the next the United States in the 1970s, then a roughly present-day Britain, before moving into a dystopian Korean future, and culminating in a post-apocalyptic world. But the book doesn't merely ascend in this manner: once it's reached this distant future the sections unwind again, and the book moves back, telling the other half of the stories (in reverse order) that brought the reader there. The final chapter is, like the first, again set in the nineteenth century.
       The characters and episodes seem to have little to do with one another, and yet Mitchell finds ingenious (and generally very small) bridging links from one to the next. He also manages to effectively divide the stories -- the first one in mid-sentence -- as each except the middle one is presented in two halves, eventually picking up where he left off (done expertly enough that it doesn't come across as merely an annoying conceit).
       The stories differ greatly: in one down on his luck would-be composer Robert Frobisher describes his life as assistant to an aging composer in Belgium, while in another reporter Luisa Rey is trying to uncover a nuclear power-plant cover-up (a thriller-story in which the murder victims fall fast and furiously). Among the most interesting is the futuristic interview with "science's first stabilized ascendant" in a world where genetically engineered creatures have long served humans (in a dystopia where the worst elements of North and South Korea seem to have combined to make one of the world's great powers). Only the middle piece, set farthest in the future (after what was if not quite the end of the world, at least a major step back), is a bit of a trial: throughout the novel Mitchell nicely adapts language to his circumstances, but the futuristic pidgin (or left-over language) in this chapter is trying for seventy pages; as the narrator there says: "Crampsome was them stones' shapes'n'words."
       Several times characters themselves express doubts about the authenticity or believability of previous accounts, but it's not something that really troubles them (or should, so it is implied, trouble the reader). Faith -- in a future, in a concept like 'humanity' (even including those who might not be considered human) -- regardless of ugly facts and petty human ambitions and the willingness of people to use others to further only their own ends is the one thing that is held to be most important. Truth isn't necessarily what matters; belief is far more important.
       Each of the main characters battles, in small and large ways, against selfish evil-doers, and what these evil-doers have in common is that they place their interests above all others and that they exert control over others. Each of the central characters in the sections works to break some sort of control. They, too, aren't perfect people; in some cases they also act at least questionably (and, arguably, reprehensibly), but their faults are far lesser.
       Essentially each character is also a story-teller, and the novel is also a paean to the power of story and imagination. (Tellingly, the connecting links, the previous pieces each character comes across -- the diary, the letters, the film -- , are of great importance to them: story (regardless of whether it is 'true' or not) is a thing to cling to, a link to the past that offers hope for the future, creation that affirms belief.)
       Mitchell presents these very different stories well. This is a moral book, but not a simplistic one: there's enough subtlety -- and good stories -- to satisfy all but the most jaded. Mitchell offers some marvelous tales, providing enough variety and suspense so that the unusual split-chapter presentation is readily accepted. A good and often surprising read.

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Cloud Atlas: Reviews: Cloud Atlas - the movie: David Mitchell: Other books by David Mitchell under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       English author David Mitchell was born in 1969. He currently lives in Ireland.

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© 2004-2011 the complete review

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