Book Review: Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr

When everything is lost, it’s our stories that survive

How do we weather the end of things? Cloud Cuckoo Land brings together an unforgettable cast of dreamers and outsiders from past, present and future to offer a vision of survival against all odds.

Constantinople, 1453:
An orphaned seamstress and a cursed boy with a love for animals risk everything on opposite sides of a city wall to protect the people they love.

Idaho, 2020:

An impoverished, idealistic kid seeks revenge on a world that’s crumbling around him. Can he go through with it when a gentle old man stands between him and his plans?

Unknown, Sometime in the Future:

With her tiny community in peril, Konstance is the last hope for the human race. To find a way forward, she must look to the oldest stories of all for guidance.

Bound together by a single ancient text, these tales interweave to form a tapestry of solace and resilience and a celebration of storytelling itself. Like its predecessor All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr’s new novel is a tale of hope and of profound human connection.

“I know why those librarians read the old stories to you,” Rex says. “Because if it’s told well enough, for as long as the story lasts, you get to slip the trap.”

Like many people, I am sure, I remember reading and being enchanted by Doerr’s first novel, All The Light We Cannot See. And so, when news of a new release reached my ears, I was excited. I was looking forward to more of his hugely engaging characters, more gorgeous and sensory descriptions… and – I am delighted to say! – I got exactly that with Cloud Cuckoo Land!

Just like All The Light…, Doerr takes on vast epic events, presented through the prism of perhaps the smallest characters caught up in them; just like All The Light…, Doerr takes a image and invests it with a value and meaning over and above its mere, mundane value; just like All The Light…, Doerr again fractures his narrative into individual perspectives following their own journeys until they converge. But, Cloud Cuckoo Land feels much more ambitious in its scope, following three separate narrative threads: the siege of Constantinople in 1453; an act of extremism and terrorism in the Lakeport Public Library in 2020; a doomed interstellar craft, The Argos, in a the twenty-second century.

In 1453, we see both sides of the siege from the orphan Anna, a Christian inside the city, and Omeir, a farm boy caught up in the war as he and his oxen were drafted into the Sultan’s army. In 2020, we follow Zeno Ninis, an eighty-year old Korean War veteran, who is in the library rehearsing a children’s play, and Seymour, the young man – neuroatypical and somewhere on the autistic spectrum, although I don’t think the words autism or Asperger’s were used – indoctrinated into an extremist act against the neighbouring building which he targets through the walls. On the Argos, we only see Konstance’s point of view, a young girl 65 years into a 500 year long trip to a new inhabitable planet that she will never see. And each of these characters have their own stories and Doerr offers up the life stories of each of them, from birth or childhood up to these seminal moments.

The structure could have been overwhelming in the hands of a lesser writer: five lead characters, five lives; a chronology that bounces through time. We see the library on that fateful day of violence, then jump to Seymour’s schooldays and Zeno’s time as a prisoner of war. This is interleaved with Konstance, initially seen at the age of fourteen after she has been isolated and alone in Vault One for 307 days, from which point we are taken back to her childhood on the Argos with her parents from the age of four. Anna’s life and Omeir’s are more conventionally chronological but still woven through the contemporary and the science fiction elements… And somehow, even though the chapters are short and we don’t spend that long with any one character – or in any one point of time – I never lost the chronology or the overview. The world building, the characterisations, the voices were all sufficiently distinct and wonderful and I did not get that feeling – which I often do in split narratives – that the trasition had occurred too quickly or felt forced or jumpy…

Favourite moments in the novel? Seymour’s discovery of the great grey owl in the woods behind his house as a child where the language is simple and naive, yet magical:

“From his spot at the base of the big dead tree, Seymour gazes up and the owl gazes down and the forest breathes and something happens: the unease mumbling at the margins of his every waking moment—the roar—falls quiet.

“There is magic in this place, the owl seems to say. You just have to sit and breathe and wait and it will find you.”

Camp Five where, despite the horrors of being a prisoner of war, Zeno finds love in the calm quiet of Rex; and the equally wonderful – if painfully awkward – reunion in 1970s London which culminates in a heady birthday party where

“strobe lights in the walls switch on, transforming the room into a flip book, limbs ratcheting here and there, mouths leering, knees and elbows flashing, and Hillary tosses his drink in the air and wraps his tree limbs around Rex, everybody doing a version of the same dance, launching first one, then the other arm toward the ceiling, as though shaping semaphores to one another, the air aflame with noise, and rather than let go, rather than join, Zeno feels so miserable, so deficient, so overwhelmed by his own naïveté—his cardboard suitcase, his all-wrong suit, his lumberjack boots, his Idaho manners, his misconceived hope that Rex invited him here because he wanted something romantic from him”

Konstance’s isolation inside Vault One, presided over by the omniscient AI Sybil – refusing to open the door for fear of contagion – felt both an evocation of 2001: A Space Odyssey and also intimately familiar after the last two years.

“the lamp sputters out; the chimney moans; the children draw closer around her. Omeir rewraps the book, and Anna holds their youngest son against her breast, and dreams of bright clean light falling across the pale walls of the city, and when they wake, late into the morning, the boy’s fever is gone.”

This is, I think, the quality of Doerr’s writing: it is clean and clear, at times simple and unadorned but also luminous.Binding these narratives and characters together – the glue or the binding of the pages of the codex – is the story saved from loss by Anna: Cloud Cuckoo Land by Antonius Diogenes, a real historical figure. Antiquity – Western Greek Classical antiquity – flows through the novel like its blood. Greek epics are read to grieving children. The megacorporation from the future is called Ilium – and absolutely not Google – and its AI a Sybil, the ship the Argos. Rex is a teacher and student of the Classics. Konstance’s father recited snippets of Diogenes’ tale to her on the Argos, which she recreates and preserves. Diogenes’ tale is the one rescued by Anna. And the tale itself is retold in its fragments and folios as prefaces to each chapter. And the tale itself is (nominally at least) a found narrative from tomb in Tyre, in which Aethon, a dimwitted shepherd watched the play The Birds by Aristophanes and believed it to be true, embarking on a ridiculous quest to reach the fabled paradisical land of the birds. When the manuscript rescued by Anna is re-discovered – when technology allowed us to see the words through the damage caused by time – Zeno Ninis sets about to translate it, as a testament to his love for Rex, and it becomes the play that the children put on and later bound and a copy given to Konstance’s father.

This is a paean to literature, to novels, to words and narratives – to the enduring power of narrative – and to the libraries and librarians, the academics who love and cherish them and protect them. And to the readers who love them and are able to “slip the traps” of the real world, its horrors and injustices and abuses by entering into Aethon’s ridiculous journey, his transformations and his trials and challenges.

Despite the wonders and pleasures of that lost story by Diogenes, the pleasure of a fool who never knows when to quit, Doerr’s novel does not place literature in a place where it usurps the real world. The Greek word nostos is at the heart of the novel:

Nostos.”

Nostos, yes. The act of homecoming, a safe arrival. Of course, mapping a single English word onto a Greek one is almost always slippery. A nostos also means a song about a homecoming.”

Just as Aethon returns home, so too do Omeir and Zeno and Konstance, and Anna, in a way. But the nostos, the homecoming, reveals an altered world – a world which is no less broken or limited or harsh, but which is also beautiful, and which is also enough:

“The world as it is is enough.”

And, maybe, it takes a tale, a fable, a work of art to allow us to see that sometimes.

In conclusion, this is an absolute gem of a novel: intricately structured, deeply ambitious, yes, but also gloriously written in that clean and clear prose, not bereft of metaphor but not enslaved to it, and with warm characters who in their quiet, unpretentious and simple ways are heroic.

What I Liked

  • A vaunting ambition, which is pulled off beautifully.
  • The intricate structural complexity, balancing 5 narrative points of view – 6 if you include Aethon’s – over a range of time periods.
  • Wonderful warm human and humane characterisation.
  • The love letter to literature and letters, that this novel is.
  • The simple, clear yet luminous prose

What Could Have Been Different

Overall:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Characters:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Plot / Pace:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Worldbuilding:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Structure:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Language:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Page Count:

640

Publisher:

Fourth Estate

Date:

28th September 2021

Available:

Amazon, Publisher

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