Some of you have read Anthony Doerr’s popular bestseller All the Light We Cannot See, liked it very much, and looked forward to his next book. After a 4.5-year wait, you’ll be happy to know that his new bestselling book, Cloud Cuckoo Land, is even more ambitious.
Doerr’s unique imagination has been given full reign to cover 3 different time periods in history while losing none of the lovely writing we’ve come to expect from him. In each of the 3 time periods, Doerr has chosen mostly young people in their teens to highlight.
From 1439-1453, we meet Anna in Constantinople, and Omeir in Bulgaria. Anna, age 7 when we meet her, works and lives in an embroidery workshop along with her older sister. She’s clearly very smart, and eventually teaches herself to read. She manages to escape the city in 1453 as it is finally on the verge of falling to the Turks.
Omeir is brought to Constantinople by force along with his grandfather’s pair of oxen to help the Ottomans lay siege to Constantinople. Born with a cleft palate, he finds more acceptance among the soldiers than he did at home. Anna and Omeir are on opposite sides of the attack, but their fates intertwine as Constantinople is about to fall.
In the 20th century, we meet Zeno as a boy in Lakeport, Idaho. His childhood is not particularly happy, and he joins the military to fight in Korea. In a prisoner of war camp, he meets Rex, and learns Greek. He is the oldest character Doerr focuses on, but he is connected to a group of young people.
Zeno’s fate in the modern day is linked to Seymour, another young person in Lakeport. His experiences as he grows up drive him to extreme behavior. He is particularly disturbed by the destruction of the forest and land around his home. His mother is constantly working at low-paying jobs, and with no father available, he has almost no adult guidance beyond the town library and librarian to help him deal with his feelings.
The third time period in this mix is in the future and features Konstance, a young girl on board the spaceship Argos along with her parents and others who have chosen to make this journey away from earth. Their destination is a distant planet in space, and it will take many years and several generations of those on board to reach it. Or so she’s been told. On board the spaceship are samples of all earth plants, all the food they’ll need, and access to all the knowledge on earth.
What connects these characters across the centuries is that they are misfits in their society. As young people, they are not yet fully integrated into their societies, and some never will be, so they may have a different perspective on life and events. Those who can read find solace in books and stories. In fact, Doerr intends his book to be “a paean to books.” [p. 623]
They also all come into contact in some way with the story of Cloud Cuckoo Land in the sky. This is presented in the story discovered by Diogenes centuries ago as the story of Aethon’s adventures in a variety of incarnations. Like Aethon, readers wish for relief from their troubles in this magic land, or anywhere but where they are, really. I think this is a very human and universal condition.
Doerr explains the seed of his idea:
“This novel owes its greatest debt to an eighteen-hundred-plus-year-old novel that no longer exists: The Wonders Beyond Thule by Antonius Diogenes, [who claimed that the book] was actually a copy of a copy of a text discovered centuries before by a soldier in the armies of Alexander the Great.” [p. 623]
Doerr’s unique imagination and vision produced Cloud Cuckoo Land. It’s long (622 pgs.), and Doerr has chosen to write it in short chapters not in chronological order by character. Readers need to pay close attention until they acquaint themselves with the characters and style.
The book actually reads much faster than one would expect of its length because there is a fair amount of blank space between chapters and the language flows so well. The down side of the format is that it activates a reader’s “just one more chapter” tendency. On the one hand, a reader can dip in and out of the story on short breaks. On the other hand, the writing is so beautiful, and interest in the characters grows as one reads, so that it’s hard to put down. I give you fair warning.
I think Marcel Theroux’s comments express it best:
“… Doerr’s [book] is much more than a mechanistic or childish device for passing time. It’s a humane and uplifting book for adults that’s infused with the magic of childhood reading experiences. Cloud Cuckoo Land is ultimately a celebration of books, the power and possibilities of reading. Manuscripts do burn, but the fact we have held onto so many and still find continued value in reading them is an aspect of our humanity that this novel justly celebrates.”
NYTimes: “From Anthony Doerr, an Ode to Storytelling That Shows How It’s Done” by Marcel Theroux 9/28/21 (updated)
Cloud Cuckoo Land will be available at Grover Beach Community Library.