Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Posted January 7, 2017 in Book Review / 0 Comments

Cloud Atlas by David MitchellCloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Published by Random House on August 17th 2004
Genres: Adult fiction, Historical Fiction, Science fiction, Dystopia
Pages: 509
Format: Paperback
Source: Owned
Reading Challenges: Beat the Backlist
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Cloud Atlas begins in 1850 with Adam Ewing, an American notary voyaging from the Chatham Isles to his home in California. Along the way, Ewing is befriended by a physician, Dr. Goose, who begins to treat him for a rare species of brain parasite. . . . Abruptly, the action jumps to Belgium in 1931, where Robert Frobisher, a disinherited bisexual composer, contrives his way into the household of an infirm maestro who has a beguiling wife and a nubile daughter. . . . From there we jump to the West Coast in the 1970s and a troubled reporter named Luisa Rey, who stumbles upon a web of corporate greed and murder that threatens to claim her life. . . . And onward, with dazzling virtuosity, to an inglorious present-day England; to a Korean superstate of the near future where neocapitalism has run amok; and, finally, to a postapocalyptic Iron Age Hawaii in the last days of history.
But the story doesn’t end even there. The narrative then boomerangs back through centuries and space, returning by the same route, in reverse, to its starting point. Along the way, Mitchell reveals how his disparate characters connect, how their fates intertwine, and how their souls drift across time like clouds across the sky.
As wild as a videogame, as mysterious as a Zen koan, Cloud Atlas is an unforgettable tour de force that, like its incomparable author, has transcended its cult classic status to become a worldwide phenomenon.

Main points

Foreword: Please listen to this and this while you read this review. Really get in the spirit of it.

This book was amazing and deeply philosophical—and a bit religious, although not the kind of religious I tend to avoid.

I will start with some notes about how I came to read it. I watched the movie for the first time years ago (when it came out in theaters) and have seen it a few times since. I didn’t know it was a book until after having seen it perhaps twice. I put it on my list, where many books go but do not get removed from quickly. As was my luck, I won a contest where a book from my TBR was chosen as a prize for me, and this was the one. Naturally, it was then sent to the TBR that is my bookshelf (along with several hundred unread others) where it lingered for months. Then I decided to pick it up and read it, entirely on a whim, which is an unusual thing to happen to such a long, philosophical book. To tell you the truth, the only thing that really kept me reading was the fact that it made sense because I had seen the movie first.

I understood the theme the movie was trying to illustrate, but it really clicked while I read the book, and that made the experience all the more enjoyable and meaningful.

And as I read, the book illuminated the finer aspects of the movie that were perhaps missed or left out entirely. So both I would say are necessary to understand the story, but definitely do watch the movie first, read the book, and then watch it again. I described it to my friend as “fitting together the pieces of a puzzle,” which is quite satisfying and the best way to describe the book as a whole. I understood the theme the movie was trying to illustrate, but it really clicked while I read the book, and that made the experience all the more enjoyable and meaningful.

These were my thoughts early on in the book. I reached page 200, and I read on, happy that the movie was becoming so clear with the help of the book and the book was comprehensible after having seen the movie several times (it doesn’t help that Ewing’s story, written in the most old-fashioned style, is first), but there was a growing nagging sensation in my mind. I was worried about missing the point.

I was worried about missing the point.

Yes, there are connections, these people’s lives are entwined in ways unexpected, but after the initial realization, what had once seemed so groundbreaking now appeared mundane. So what? It’s an easy concept to grasp now, easy to apply to everyday life. Why are there five hundred pages, six such different stories devoted to this idea? For, truly, each story could be its own book, but presented in this way, they lacked inherent meaning. Typically, stories are praised and considered based on their substance and individual meaning, not—not meaningful only in terms of how they connect to other stories. So what IS that underlying factor connecting them all that is so important? Could it really be just that our lives influence or are present in others’ lives in ways unfathomable to us while we live? I looked for more clues, and I noticed that the order mattered—each story mentioned the one before it, until halfway, where it peaked and then the stories mentioned the ones after it (but the same stories were mentioned in the same ones; it was consistent in that). But after that, the similarities were few. But why take the time to flesh out such unique stories? The concept of connections could be explained in a much simpler collection. I couldn’t help but search for meaning in the individual stories, detailed as they are. Nothing seems to be an accident. I kept looking.

As I read on, it hit me at around page 480 (nearly the end) that perhaps one of the greater themes is the rise and fall of civilizations, because that’s a big theme in the stories of Adam Ewing, Sonmi, and Zachry. I wasn’t sure how it played into the stories of Robert Frobisher, Luisa Rey, and Timothy Cavendish, but it occurred to me that perhaps they are simply examples of civilizations that have risen and fallen. Those three are the ones with the most in common—they can’t span more than a century, maybe a century and a half. But Adam Ewing’s story is the earliest, maybe a half-century earlier—I confess I do not recall any exact dates, but it is around the time of the California gold rush, which is in the 1850s, so indeed a half-century is not so far off. Frobisher’s letters are around the 1930s and Rey’s adventure is around the 1970s. I haven’t any solid idea of when Cavendish’s story was, although I might if I had paid better attention. Perhaps in the 20th century. Events in Europe usually tend to take place in a more modern time than I assume they do. [Note: I wrote this before reading the synopsis. I’m pleased that I was dead-on, although Cavendish’s is present-day.]

Anyway, I had assumed such about the big theme until it was elaborated on in the last couple pages, and thankful I was for it. Yes, the rise & fall of civilizations was mentioned, but it went on. Adam Ewing mentioned belief and its power; how we perceive the world will determine its outcome. If we give way to the predatory types, believing that the world is for the strong and so letting them have their way, then that is how it shall be. Predators shall reduce society to extinction.

Predators shall reduce society to extinction.

 Of course the power of belief in a better world is at most a fantasy in our realistic times. As Ewing says, “It is the hardest of worlds to make real” (page 508). It is difficult to get enough of the world on board with this idealist viewpoint to make a significant difference. I am not blind to the difficulty, although Ewing has hope. As the Star Wars rebels say, “a rebellion is built on hope,” and I think Sonmi would agree, no matter how eloquently she tries to rephrase it into oblivion. I just think it’s funny how accurately Ewing, the earliest of the narrators, predicted the fall of civilization (that would occur more than once, it seems) resulting in the story of Zachry (the last story, chronologically), whose form of civilization will surely not be the last.

It truly is interesting, though, how expertly Mitchell wove the stories together. There were borrowed names, identical metaphors, and of course that telltale comet birthmark. It was exciting to come across the ways the title cropped up—“cloud atlas” meant nothing to me before, but in reading the book you understand it (at least somewhat; it’s still a bit of a vague concept). A few stories mention it, but not all (that I can recall). I don’t believe I knew it in the movie, although Zachry may have said it (as he did in the book). I honestly could not tell what anyone in his story was saying most of the time. The book, while still a bit difficult to understand, makes it easier.

It’s also fascinating how different the stories are. They are told in different ways. Ewing’s is a journal, published by his son. Frobisher’s is a series of letters, all written by him.

Each narrator has a unique voice (and unique writing quirks).

Rey’s is a story told in 3rd person omniscient, present tense no less, later to become a book. Cavendish’s is a memoir, I believe, later to become a movie. (What I love best about his story is that there is movieception; he publishes a book made into a movie, which I’m sure makes it into the movie about his own life based on his memoir, which is part of the book Cloud Atlas which also becomes a movie.) Sonmi’s story is an interview of sorts. Zachry’s is in the form of a story he is telling to youngsters around a campfire, or whatever his equivalent is. Each narrator has a unique voice (and unique writing quirks). It’s like reading several different books by different authors in one. Each story is split in half to make room for the other stories and then resumed later, but is impossible to not get attached and invested. It is impossible to forget the events. It is also difficult to predict the outcomes; some have it luckier than others. But it is a tale you can’t stop reading until the end. Definitely one for those who like books with philosophical themes presented in such a puzzle-piece format.

After this lengthy review, I have no choice but to recommend this book. Again, watch the movie first and after. It’s a beautiful movie. And the music. That’s one thing you can never experience the beauty of in the book. I can play the Cloud Atlas March (not the famous Sextet, for  I am no orchestra) on the piano, and it sends me back into the story every time. It is definitely something that stays with you.

P. S. I realize I did not say much on how it was religious. There is the obvious theme of reincarnation. Then there are the various religious beliefs of the characters. Sonmi’s story has a lot of religious undertones. The other things are subtle, but appealing. It’s not a preachy book. It is more a book for figuring what you want to get out of life.

P. P. S. This review is a fantastic companion to reading & understanding the book and its themes better.


Peace, though beloved of our Lord, is a cardinal virtue only if your neighbors share your conscience.

Adam Ewing, page 16.

To fool a judge, feign fascination, but to bamboozle the whole court, feign boredom.

Useful advice, courtesy of Adam Ewing, page 34.

Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.

Zachry, page 308.


The movie is very good. It’s well done, and I think the choices of what to include were good, but of course some things would be very difficult to get without reading the book. The movie added some stuff, including birthmarks that would make no sense (like giving one to Zachry instead of Meronym, leading me to believe the movie thought that both had them, but a reincarnated soul cannot exist in two people). They also added some dialogue, a lot of which was beautiful. They added more connections. Obviously they also used the actors as connections, some of which was amazing. (You’ll never be able to convince me that Halle Berry was Jocasta, or that Ben Whishaw was Georgette.) They also changed some things, like relationships between people. In fact they made up over half of Sonmi’s storyline. They cut out loads of characters, including a huge chunk of Frobisher’s storyline. But ultimately I guess it didn’t matter; they got the right point across. And if you don’t mind them, watch with subtitles for  Zachry’s storyline. (I watched only his parts with subs after watching it through without subs.) Another note; they made it seem more tragic than it felt in the book, though they exchanged some deaths for others. Hard not to get emotional. They also definitely added some things to tie up the plots nicely, but I suppose they aren’t too far-fetched. I’d say it’s a pretty fair adaptation of the book.

  reaction upon finishing

That really clears things up. That’s the key!

this book in one word


About David Mitchell

David Mitchell was born in Southport, Merseyside, in England, raised in Malvern, Worcestershire, and educated at the University of Kent, studying for a degree in English and American Literature followed by an M.A. in Comparative Literature. He lived for a year in Sicily, then moved to Hiroshima, Japan, where he taught English to technical students for eight years, before returning to England. After another stint in Japan, he currently lives in Ireland with his wife Keiko and their two children. In an essay for Random House, Mitchell wrote: “I knew I wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, but until I came to Japan to live in 1994 I was too easily distracted to do much about it. I would probably have become a writer wherever I lived, but would I have become the same writer if I’d spent the last 6 years in London, or Cape Town, or Moose Jaw, on an oil rig or in the circus? This is my answer to myself.”

Overall: five-stars


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