1001 books, Author, Book review, David Mitchell, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Sceptre

‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell


Fiction – paperback; Sceptre; 544 pages; 2005.

Out of all the recommendations I have received from fellow book bloggers over the past few years, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas gets mentioned more than any other book. It has been lauded by so many people I was almost too scared to read it, which is why it languished in my ever-growing to-be-read pile for more than three years.

When I finally worked up the courage to read it, I have to be brutally honest and say I could not work out what all the fuss was about.

For those of you who haven’t read Cloud Atlas, it’s essentially six novellas following the lives of six characters (all vaguely related or linked to one another in some way) and moves forward in time so that pretty much the whole scope of human history is covered, from the 19th century to some post-apocalyptic future we are yet to reach. It then works backwards, so that you reach the end via all the previous stories so you end up with 12 chapters all told. These stories are as follows:

The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing — a 19th century seafaring novella very much in the vein of Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers and Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish, right down to the use of ampersands throughout.

Letters from Zedelghem — set in the 1930s, this tells the story of an English con artist who moves to Belgium and ingratiates himself with a reclusive composer and his family. It reads like a pre-war novel and has some raunchy romance thrown in for good measure.

Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery — a fast-moving industrial espionage type thriller set in 1970s America, it reminded me a little of John Grisham’s The Firm.

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish — set in England in the late 20th century, it throws a nod to P.G. Wodehouse, as it is essentially a comedy of manners in which a 60-something editor gets mistakenly locked up in an old people’s home from which he cannot escape.

An Orison of Sonmi — an eerie science fiction thriller about clones, I found this bit the most intriguing (and moving) story in the entire novel, reminding me a little of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After — this is set in the future after the science and technology is long gone, leaving behind a world in which even the language is corrupted and humankind must eke out a very primitive existence.

By its very nature, the diverse range of genres presented here means that the reader will find some chapters more enjoyable than others. I definitely preferred the two thrillers — the espionage one and the science fiction one — which is generally indicative of my reading tastes, while I thoroughly struggled with the futuristic one written in a kind of pidgin English that bored me and confused me in equal measure. And that, I guess, is my major gripe with this novel. It works in parts but not as a whole.

I was left with the impression that Cloud Atlas is a writer’s book, not a reader’s one, because it felt like a succession of literary stunts — for the sake of it. If Mitchell was a pastry chef, I imagine he wouldn’t be happy just creating the dessert: he’d want to create Michelin-star four-course meals as well, if only to prove he could do it.

Not that there is any doubt that Mitchell can write — the six interlinked stories here are quite extraordinary examples of his ability to switch genres and time periods with relative ease. However,in my opinion, it felt like he was showing off. As much as I pride myself on seeking out different genres to read and trying books set in vastly different times and places, I don’t necessarily want to experience these all in the one novel. If I want to read a seafaring story, I’ll read one. Ditto for a thriller.

I devoted two days to Cloud Atlas while on a recent holiday in the sun, time that I will never get back. Before you all jump up and down and leave me abusive comments, I’m not saying that I completely hated the book. I simply found it hard work, and perhaps it was not best suited for a lazy beach read, something to bear in mind if you’re considering packing it in your suitcase any time soon. A worthy read, yes, an enjoyable one, so-so. And while Mitchell fans may disagree, I’d prefer Black Swan Green over this any day.

Author, Book review, David Mitchell, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Random House, Setting

‘Black Swan Green’ by David Mitchell


Fiction – hardcover; Random House; 294 pages; 2006.

It’s 1982. Duran Duran are the band of the moment, Margaret Thatcher is in power and the Falklands War is in full swing.

Jason Taylor, who lives in a small Worcestershire village called Black Swan Green, is 13 years old. When he’s not at home with his squabbling parents and an older sister who wants to leave him in the lurch by fleeing to university as soon as she can, he’s at school fending off the bullies who pick on his stuttering and lack of sporting ability. Desperate to belong, he hides several guilty secrets, including a burning desire to be a poet, and muddles through a year in which his parent’s marriage disintegrates around him.

While Black Swan Green is not strictly a coming-of-age story, Jason Taylor does grow and change over the course of the 13 months in which the story is set. He loses his naivety and bolsters his poor self esteem by learning to stand up against those who bully him.

Coupled with the war against Argentina (in which a local boy is killed) and his parent’s impending separation, he learns that the world is a much bigger, maybe darker, place than Black Swan Green.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I got totally immersed in it and hungrily devoured every page in the space of a wet, windy weekend.

I loved the references to my own childhood (I am the same age as David Mitchell) and despite growing up on the opposite side of the planet couldn’t believe the similarities between a 13-year-old living in a little village in England and a 13-year-old living in a little village in Australia. I got a lot of chuckles from reminders of things I’d long forgotten, such as the excitement of buying a “TDK C-60 cassette to tape songs off the radio”!

But I have my doubts as to whether this attention to nostalgic detail will be appreciated by readers who were not young teenagers at the time in which this book is set.

Despite Mitchell’s ability to write beautifully — my favourite lines include: “Lyme Regis was a casserole of tourists. Everywhere smelt of suntan oil, hamburgers and burnt sugar” (page 161); “A sick bus growled past and made the air smell of pencils” (page 195); and “Grimy windows rectangled misty gloom. The exact colour of boredom” (page 207) — I’m not entirely convinced that his talent can paper over the fact that the book lacks a sustained plot.

Essentially Black Swan Green is a mood piece, a beautiful, atmospheric and evocative mood piece, but a mood piece nonetheless. Each chapter is a self-sustained short story in its own right, and there’s nothing really tying them all together, apart from the voice of the narrator. Characters mentioned in one chapter disappear only to reappear unexpectedly several chapters later on. This annoyed me, because the narrative is linear, and most linear narratives don’t treat characters as if they can be turned on and off like a switch.

Still, this is just a minor irritation and I wouldn’t let this put you off reading this wonderfully entertaining and highly evocative novel.