Synopses & Reviews
Set against the magnificent backdrop of Alaska in the waning days of World War II, The Cloud Atlas
is an enthralling debut novel, a story of adventure and awakening—and of a young soldier who came to Alaska on an extraordinary, top-secret mission…and found a world that would haunt him forever.
Drifting through the night, whisper-quiet, they were the most sublime manifestations of a desperate enemy: Japanese balloon bombs. Made of rice paper, at once ingenious and deadly, they sailed thousands of miles across the Pacific...and once they started landing, the U.S. scrambled teams to find and defuse them, and then keep them secret from an already anxious public. Eighteen-year-old Louis Belk was one of those men. Dispatched to the Alaskan frontier, young Sergeant Belk was better trained in bomb disposal than in keeping secrets. And the mysteries surrounding his mission only increased when he met his superior officer—a brutal veteran OSS spy hunter who knew all too well what the balloons could do—and Lily, a Yupik Eskimo woman who claimed she could see the future.
Louiss superior ushers him into a world of dark secrets; Lily introduces Louis to an equally disorienting world of spirits—and desire. But the world that finally tests them all is Alaska, whose vastness cloaks mysteries that only become more frightening as they unravel. Chasing after the ghostly floating weapons, Louis embarks upon an adventure that will lead him deep into the tundra. There, on the edge of the endless wilderness, he will make a discovery and a choice that will change the course of his life.
At once a heart-quickening mystery and a unique love story, The Cloud Atlas is also a haunting, lyrical rendering of a little-known chapter in history. Brilliantly imagined, beautifully told, this is storytelling at its very best.
From the Hardcover edition.
In a richly inspired debut reminiscent of Snow Falling on Cedars and The English Patient, this stirring novel, set against a magnificent Alaskan backdrop, reveals one of the most closely guarded secrets of World War II in a tale that is both a heart-quickening mystery and a unique love story. Beautifully told in a poignant dual narration, The Cloud Atlas sheds remarkable light on a little-known chapter of history while bringing the wild beauty of Alaska--and the grievous days of war--vividly to life. During World War II, Japan launched close to 10,000 bomb-laden balloons at North America--a "subtle" military action that marked the world's first intercontinental warheads. From this fact, Callanan weaves a story of a young American bomb disposal sergeant, Louis Belk, who is only 18 years old when he is sent on a top-secret mission to Anchorage to chase down these improbable weapons. Alone in an intimidating city filled with bitter reminders of war, it's the people he finds there who haunt him the longest: a Yup'ik Eskimo woman, a shaman, a boy. Sixty years later, each remains like a point on a map, connecting him in waves to the mysteries left unresolved at war's end. And the enigmatic woman who steals his heart will send him on a lifelong journey to discover the truth behind friendship, trust, and love.
About the Author
Liam Callanan teaches creative writing at Georgetown University and frequently appears on NPRs Morning Edition and in The New York Times
, The Washington Post
, and a number of other publications. This is his first novel.
From the Hardcover edition.
Reading Group Guide
1. Part One begins with a prologue depicting the Japanese boys final hours. How does this initial scene affect your reading of the novel? What conflicts does it establish regarding the narrator and his own road to adulthood?
2. Louis Belks first line in Chapter One is, “Im a wanted man.” Discuss the irony in this choice of words. In what ways is he a fugitive? By whom is he “wanted?”
3. Louis chooses to stay with Ronnie through the night when he sees “no morphine” written on his chart, a reminder of the boys suffering as well. What are the politics of pain in The Cloud Atlas? How is Louis able to relieve his own pain?
4. The Alaskan landscape is in many ways a primary character. Do you see this landscape reflected in the emotional lives of its inhabitants?
5. How does Louis navigate sexuality? Do you view his celibacy as an indication of his strength or his fragility? What perpetuates the novels chain of unrequited love?
6. Discuss the narrative choices made by Liam Callanan in this novel. What is the effect of his use of the first person? How would you characterize Louis voice? In what way do the past and present mirror or enhance each other as The Cloud Atlas unfolds?
7. Do shaman and priest share much common ground in Louis world? Should they? Are the missionaries and military personnel in this corner of the globe for opposing reasons? Who are ultimately the novels most noble characters?
8. Various perspectives of an afterlife are offered through the characters in The Cloud Atlas. Which of these notions do you find to be the most plausible, and the most comforting?
9. Who were Louis surrogate parents after he left the orphanage? Do you count Gurley among them? In what way do ancestry, class, and education level determine the status of the characters in this community?
10. The author undertook extensive research in creating The Cloud Atlas. What historical or geographic aspects of the novel were most surprising to you?
11. Rice paper plays a key role in the balloon-bomb strategy, and Gurleys discovery of its durability has nearly fatal results. How does this duality-paper as deadly yet delicate-reflect other aspects of the Japanese plot?
12. Does Ronnies life story reflect Louis at all? Does fate or circumstance perpetuate their friendship?
13. What ties Louis to this locale? What mysteries are finally resolved for him in those closing three days? Has his relationship to religion been transformed in any way?
14. What is the effect of Louis merging memories in the novels final pages? How are birth and death portrayed?
15. What contemporary comparisons can you make to this chapter in World War II history? Who are todays Sergeant Belks?
Published to critical acclaim, Liam Callanans debut novel combines a fascinating, little-known chapter of World War II with a unique tale of love and loyalty. The Cloud Atlas
tells the story of Sergeant Louis Belk, who at eighteen is given the daunting task of defusing bombs throughout the haunting wilderness of Alaska. His mission is top secret: the explosives have been launched from Japan in whisper-quiet balloons, an ingenious campaign created by a desperate enemy. The mysteries of Belks mission intensify when his commanding officer proves to be both brutal and unpredictable-and in love with the same woman who has won Belks heart. She is Lily, a Yupik Eskimo who introduces both men to a world of spirits and visions that will change the course of their lives.
Framed around true historical events, with memorable characters and exquisite writing, The Cloud Atlas offers much to discuss. The questions, topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Liam Callanans The Cloud Atlas. We hope they will enrich your experience of this mesmerizing novel.
The Cloud Atlas
Also available as a Dell e-Book, ISBN 0-440-33485-3