The Cloud Atlas


Liam Callanan




Date Reviewed:

April 3, 2007

wo of the highly regarded books that came out 2004 were, coincidentally, both named the The Cloud Atlas. (Actually, the title of Mitchell's book is Cloud Atlas: A Novel). I decided to read both books, and see how they measured up against each other. My conclusion: Mitchell's book is the better novel. Callanan had me turning the pages quick enough, for a while I was interested in the story, but it veered off into a direction that I did not like.

The Cloud Atlas is the story of Louis Belk, an 18 year old sergeant in the US Army at the end of World War II. Belk has been trained as a bomb disposal expert. He happens to be in the San Francisco area when he witnesses a huge paper balloon drift overhead and land on a hillside, where it bursts in flames and kills several men. It turns out that the Japanese are attempting to bomb the United States from afar, by constructing huge paper balloons to drift across the Pacific. Packed with explosives and incendiaries, the Japanese hope to cause wildfires and terror on the continental United States. (This is based upon an actual Japanese project that the US military successfully covered up through out the war. Because of the total suppression of news with regard to these balloons, the Japanese erroneously concluded that their balloons were not reaching the USA.) Belk is sent to Alaska, where most of the Japanese balloons drift.

In Alaska, Belk serves under Captain Gurley - a Princeton man who seeks to make his reputation as an OSS man by solving the problem of the Japanese bombs. Gurley has an artifical leg, he lost the leg due to an early encounter with balloon bomb. Also in Alaska, Belk meets Lily, a native Yu'pik Eskimo woman who works as a palm reader / prostitute.

The floating bombs are dangerous and mysterious. Plus, there are rumors that the Japanese plan to pack them with diseased rats (carrying plague), or that spies will ride the balloons into America. Just the act of defusing a bomb would make for some exciting story telling. But the story Callanan wants to tell not a thriller with bombs and spies. Instead, Callanan wants to write about mysticism. Lily is gifted with astonishing powers, she has uncanny knowledge of people and events. Much of the plot advances on Lily's mystical powers, and Callanan wants us to believe that her abilities are real - which was a real problem for me with this book. I didn't like a story where the only thing propelling the plot forward is a bunch of intuitions that are always right. My biggest disappointment with this book was the realization that all three of the main characters are insane - Lily, Gurley and Belk are simply nuts. Callanan describes Alaska as a different kind of place, the with a unique landscape and climate that changes people - I guess that is his explanation for the crazy antics of his characters.

Lily, Belk and Gurley end up in a love triangle, and except Lily isn't in love with either of them, and she and Belk are not lovers. Instead, Lily is in love with a Japanese spy named Saburo, but he is long gone by the time of the events of the novel. Meanwhile Lily continues to work as a prostitute. Gurley gets more violent and jealous. In the end, I didn't like any of Callanan's characters - as the novel progressed, and they continued to created problems for themselves with their irrational behavior, I grew more disappointed. I didn't think Belk actually defuses any bombs in the novel. I rate this two stars, not that great of a book.