This, by David Mitchell, came across my radar because of the news around the forthcoming movie. In book form it’s called Cloud Atlas: A Novel, but that’s a bit misleading because it’s actually six, wrapped up together. I enjoyed it a lot but can’t give an unmixed recommendation.

Describing the combining structure would be a spoiler, so I’ll limit myself to saying that it’ll be familiar to lovers of the music of Steve Reich (a small group, I bet). Let’s just say it’s clever and well-executed.

In fact, that’s how I’ll badge the whole work: Smart and well-done; perhaps a little too much so for its own good.

Of the six novels, I thought maybe three stood up as fine short works on their own: Letters From Zedelghem, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, and the central Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Everythin’ After. The connections between the six are deft but inessential, and they don’t cohere particularly well as an alternate history.

On the other hand, the Luisa Rey Mysteries, while fun, devolve into an ending as silly as a Bruce Willis film’s, and I couldn’t bring myself to care very much about Adam Ewing or the people around Sonmi~451.

But there is a whole lot of good storytelling here, some of the people in the stories are compelling, and much of the writing is wonderful. In particular, there are two virtuoso variations on modern English: pure intellectual treats, pulled off with lots of flow and no apparent strain. Finally, if you have a feeling for the geography of Bruges, Korea, or the Big Island of Hawai’i, you’ll enjoy the sense of place.

I will have to read something else by Mitchell, ideally something in which he isn’t trying quite so hard. And I may well go see the film.



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From: Luis (Sep 15 2012, at 13:30)

I literally finished this about 30 minutes ago. Trying not to spoil anything, I think it's the kind of book I'll have to re-read to fully appreciate. In particular, I think some of the detail work in the second half of the book complicates the book in ways that I had to wrestle with to understand - which maybe means "the author was trying too hard," or maybe means "there is even more nuance there that I really need to drill down to appreciate completely."

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From: Tim Hodgson (Sep 15 2012, at 15:46)

Great storytelling, I agree, but I wanted to put in a word for Russell Hoban's brilliant 1980 novel 'Riddley Walker'. The language of the central section of Cloud Atlas is strongly reminiscent, to put it mildly, of the earlier work.

To be fair, I think David Mitchell did acknowledge the debt in interviews, but some mention of it in the book itself wouldn't have gone amiss.

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From: Giles Alexander (Sep 15 2012, at 17:28)

Black Swan Green is about as far from Cloud Atlas as you could imagine: an almost perfect roman à clef. He seems to be writing very close to himself and it feels very natural for it.

I haven't read it, but Number 9 Dream gets good reviews. Apparently it works very well if you're familiar with Japan.

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From: Jon Ellis (Sep 17 2012, at 01:50)

I second the Russell Hoban recommendation / association. Fremder, Kleinzeit, Amaryllis Night and Day. All wonderful!

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From: Pete Meyers (Sep 18 2012, at 09:59)

Try Mitchell's "Black Swan Green" (riveting coming of age novel; very straightforward) or "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" (his latest; historical maritime Japan & about 1000 times more fun than that sounds).

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