“Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell


This book has been on my shelf for a little while. My friend Brian gave it to me, which was great because I wanted to read it anyway. I had seen the film, which was very good, so the book was already on my list of books to read. Anyway, I started reading it while on my trip to Israel and just finished it last week. My computer was in the shop, so hence, I am just now getting around to writing about it.

The book is amazing! It’s a thoroughly engrossing allegory of the cycles of stories, mythology, and resurrection, all woven together to symbolize the interconnectedness between lives and events. The books is comprised of six stories, which are all connected; but the structure of the book is circular, representing the cycles of rebirth. Here is the overall structure:

  1. The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (part 1)
  2. Letters from Zedelghem (part 1)
  3. Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (part 1)
  4. The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (part 1)
  5. An Orison of Sonmi-451 (part 1)
  6. Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After
  7. An Orison of Sonmi-451 (part 2)
  8. The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (part 2)
  9. Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (part 2)
  10. Letters from Zedelghem (part 2)
  11. The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (part 2)

In addition to the structure of the books representing eternal cycles, the story itself is rich with symbolism supporting this idea. One of the central symbols is the comet-shaped birthmark that appears on the central characters. On one hand, this represents that they are essentially reincarnated beings, all of whom share the same soul. But the comet is also a symbol of cycles, since comets travel a circular route through the heavens and reappear at regular intervals. Finally, a comet is fleeting and temporary, just like our lives. But our lives, like our myths and stories, come around and reappear again, just as the comet does.

In addition to the comet, Mitchell uses clouds as symbols for the soul, stressing that although they are constantly changing form, they are in essence eternal, just as the soul is.

I watched clouds awobbly from the floor o’ that kayak. 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.

(p. 308)

Mitchell also includes references to theology regarding cycles of rebirth, such as the following reference to Buddhist ideology.

Keep looking, he said, and from the mountainside emerged the carved features of a cross-legged giant. One slender hand was raised in a gesture of grace. Weaponry and elements had strafed, ravaged, and cracked his features, but his outline was discernible if you knew where to look. I said the giant reminded me of Timothy Cavendish, making Hae-Joo Im smile for the first time in a long while. He said the giant was a deity that offered salvation from a meaningless cycle of birth and rebirth, and perhaps the cracked stonework still possessed a lingering divinity. Only the inanimate can be so alive. I suppose QuarryCorp will destroy him when they get around to processing those mountains.

(pp. 328 – 329)

As much as I hate spoilers, I must include a minor one here, so feel free to skip this last section of the post if needed. One of the characters, Robert Frobisher, is about to commit suicide. In his note, he explains how he will be reborn, how his soul is eternal, and how everything that existed and passed away will eventually come around again. It’s an amazing passage and one that I feel is fitting to end this post.

Luger here. Thirteen minutes to go. Feel trepidation, naturally, but my love for this coda is stronger. An electrical thrill that, like Adrian, I know I am to die. Pride, that I shall see it through. Certainties. Strip back the beliefs pasted on by governesses, schools, and states, you find indelible truths at one’s core. Rome’ll decline and fall again, Cortés’ll lay Tenochtitlán to waste again, and later, Ewing will sail again. Adrian’ll be blown to pieces again, you and I’ll sleep under Corsican stars again, I’ll come to Bruges again, fall in and out of love with Eva again, you’ll read this letter again, the sun’ll grow cold again. Nietzsche’s gramophone record. When it ends, the Old One plays it again, for an eternity of eternities.

Time cannot permeate this sabbatical. We do not stay dead long. Once my Luger lets me go, my birth, next time around, will be upon me in a heartbeat. Thirteen years from now we’ll meet again at Gersham, ten years later I’ll be back in this same room, holding the same gun, composing this same letter, my resolution as perfect as my many-headed sextet. Such eloquent certainties comfort me at this quiet hour.

(pp. 470 – 471)



Filed under Literature

7 responses to ““Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell

  1. Hello Jeff,

    Wow. Splendid review of a splendid book. I read the book when it came out and was so mesmerized I had to immediately reread it again. I was obsessed and trying to understand all the linguistic intricacies. Possibly the most powerful novel of our times, and the movie was quite good as well, as you pointed out.

    When I was reading it I was a member of a book club. It so happened that none of its members had understood the novel, and all of them actually heavily criticized it, especially for spiritual undertones. Needless to say, I left the book club shortly after… Anyway, I have a little thing on the novel on my blog too (http://symbolreader.net/2012/12/27/cloud-atlas-farewell-to-the-age-of-pisces/), though I am slightly embarrassed by it now. I imagine perhaps now I would write something deeper about it, as you undoubtedly did. I adore the quotes that you picked.

    I hope I have managed to convey how pivotal the book was for me and how happy I am that you found it so meaningful as well. I feel right about starting my blog and sharing my thoughts with a more like-minded crowd.

    Have a good Sunday


    P.S. Possibly my longest comment ever!

    • Hi Monika! Let me begin by saying that I am not at all surprised by the fact that you read and loved this book. It’s clearly right up your alley. And I would also have quit the book club. 😉 Ultimately, though, it led you to start your blog, which I love. So, as in the book, you can see how all things are connected.

      I thought about exploring the language in the book. As a writer, I was very impressed by the way Mitchell was able to shift voices within each section. Not an easy task, and it seems so effortless. The sign of a skilled wordsmith.

      Anyway, have to run out for a bit, but I look forward to checking out your blog post when I get back. Hope you have a wonderful weekend, and thanks for the thoughtful comment.


  2. I’ve wanted to read this book, too, even before seeing the movie. I’m happy that a book reader confirms that it did the original volume justice. I love stories like this of interconnectivity as I heavily study that myself. I might have to bump Cloud Atlas up on my Goodreads list. Thank you for the wonderful review!

    • Hi! Glad you enjoyed the review. Based on what you shared in your comment, I think you would really love the book. Please be sure to ping me and let me know your thoughts after you read it. I’d be interested in hearing what what you think. Cheers!

  3. Brilliant movie this one. One of the best ones I had seen in a long time. I would love to read this book. Many thanks for sharing. Warmest regards.