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The Cloud Atlas Reader’s Guide

By Liam Callanan

The Cloud Atlas by Liam Callanan


Published to critical acclaim, Liam Callanan’s 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 Belk’s mission intensify when his commanding officer proves to be both brutal and unpredictable–and in love with the same woman who has won Belk’s heart. She is Lily, a Yup’ik 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 Callanan’s The Cloud Atlas. We hope they will enrich your experience of this mesmerizing novel.

The Cloud Atlas
A Novel
Liam Callanan
ISBN 0-385-33695-0
Also available as a Dell e-Book, ISBN 0-440-33485-3

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Part One begins with a prologue depicting the Japanese boy’s 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 Belk’s first line in Chapter One is, “I’m 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 boy’s 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 novel’s 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 novel’s 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 Gurley’s 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 Ronnie’s 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 novel’s 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 today’s Sergeant Belks?

About this Author

Liam Callanan teaches creative writing at Georgetown University and frequently appears on NPR’s “Morning Edition” and in The New York Times, Washington Post, and a number of other publications. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

Praise for The Cloud Atlas:

“Richly textured. . . . Atmospheric and moving, this is an impressively assured debut.”
–Publishers Weekly

“A haunting story that will remind many of Ondaatje’s The English Patient–and that merits the comparison.”
Kirkus Reviews

“A poignant and lyrical first novel written with the assurance of a master–Alaska is beautifully realized in all its harshness and native magic.”
–T. C. Boyle, author of Drop City

“Beautifully written and astonishingly well researched. . . . It was the setting that swept me away, but the characters that I will remember.”
San Jose Mercury-News
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