Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
Published by Scribner
Publication date: September 28, 2021
At long last, author Anthony Doerr, whose last novel, All the Light We Cannot See is one of my all-time favorite books, has come out with a new novel. Massive in its scope, Cloud Cuckoo Land covers everything from the life of a young girl in 1450s Constantinople, that of young man conscripted into the sultan’s army as it marches on the city, the small town of Lakeport Idaho from the 1940s until the present day, and a young girl in a space station at some point in the future as it leaves a decimated Earth behind in search of a new habitable planet. The through line in all of this is an ancient fable about a shepherd, Aethon, hoping to find a sorcerer to turn him into a bird so he can reach a magical city in the sky. A fable called Cloud Cuckoo Land.
This is not reading for the faint of heart. It’s almost 650 pages long with a timeline that covers centuries and continents. However, Doerr is no lightweight storyteller. He manages Cloud Cuckoo Land with a focused cast. There is Konstance, traveling through space with Sybil, an advanced AI machine keeping her alive while she pieces together the story of a foolish shepherd. Anna lives during Constantinople’s siege reading a moth-eaten book to a dying sister. Outside the city is Omeir, a poor Muslim boy conscripted into the Sultan’s army on its holy quest to retake their lands. In the 20th century there is Zeno in small town Idaho. As a P.O.W. in the Korean War he meets a British soldier who instills a love of Greek in him, reminding him of the town librarians who read The Odyssey to him when he was little. Seymour is a young man with sensory processing issues living in the same town who only feels safe in the woods where he lives. In high school he becomes radicalized and takes a bomb to the library. And so it goes.
Interspersed between each of the characters’ chapters are bits of passages from the fable. A simple story, it’s my least favorite part of Cloud Cuckoo Land. Maybe because its content felt uninspiring, almost silly, even though its existence is the novel’s Rosetta Stone. The combination is incongruous. Thankfully, it’s largely portrayed in very brief fragments.
The key to Cloud Cuckoo Land is in Doerr’s dedication:
For the librarians
Then, now, and in the years to come.
This is a novel of stories, based on an ancient story and if it meanders, goes off script a bit, its soul lingers after the last page. Doerr uses his gift to create a grand tale with a battered book that lasts for centuries through the loving care of those who come across it. Anna, who rescues it from a burning city in the 1400s to Zeno, who dedicates himself to translating it into English again. And then Konstance, a teenager all alone in the future, with all of the world’s knowledge at her fingertips, desperate for connection with the past. Each is linked, carefully, solidly through Doerr’s prose and the world he builds. Cloud Cuckoo Land may not be the novel for everyone, but for those who love books it’s an experience worth having.
But books, like people, die too. They die in fires or floods or in the mouths of worms or at the whims of tyrants. If they are not safeguarded, they go out of the world. And when a great book goes out of the world, the memory dies a second death.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Scribner in exchange for an honest review.*