Like many others, I absolutely the bestselling All The Light We Cannot See, so I was excited to read a new novel by the same author was out. Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr, is a complex and ambitious novel of epic proportions. It contains multiple storylines and timelines that span many centuries. At first, I found this constant jumping between stories and worlds distracted me from the beauty of Doerr’s prose. I found myself preferring one storyline to another and felt irritated when I was forced out of one world and into another. I started racing through the sections I didn’t like so much in order to join my favourites again.
However, as the novel progresses and clarity starts to build between the simultaneous narratives, I became drawn into the core, compelling idea behind the novel – that we remain connected with one another through the power of stories long after we are gone. And I slowly I grew fond of all the protagonists, even those I had initially found irritating.
The novel moves back and forth through three distinct time frames, from Constantinople in 1453 and Idaho in 2020 to the unknown future decades away. Its cast of main characters – Constance, Zeno, Seymour, Anna and Omeir – all have something in common: they are outsiders and dreamers. What binds them together is their relationship to a single ancient Greek text called Cloud Cuckoo Land, written by Antonius Diogenes around the first century A.D, and they are all knowingly or unknowingly responsible for its survival against all the odds. Doerr explains:
‘The world we’re handing our kids brims with challenges; climate instability, pandemics, disinformation. I wanted this novel to reflect those anxieties, but also offer meaningful hope, so I tried to create a tapestry of times and places that reflects our interconnectedness – with other species, with each other, with the ones who lived before us, and the ones who will be here after we’re gone.’
Within the walls of 15th century Constantinople, thirteen-year-old orphan Anna stumbles upon a book. She reads the story of the shepherd Aethon, seeking a magical, heavenly place in the sky, to her dying sister as an escape from the horrors of the besieged city surrounding them. Five hundred years later, in a library in Idaho, eighty-year-old Zeno, who learned Greek as a prisoner of war, rehearses five children in an adaptation of Aethon’s story, preserved through the centuries. And alone in the future, in the interstellar ship Argos, fourteen-year-old Konstance stops herself going mad by copying the same story, told to her by her beloved father, onto scraps of sacking. Reading is not only comforting but also healing for all these lonely and isolated characters.
The rich tapestry of tales that the main characters interweave between their worlds act as a celebration of storytelling itself. Indeed, all the characters have life-changing relationships with librarians at the heart of their stories. The novel itself is dedicated to ‘librarians then, now, and in the years to come’, because Doerr’s hope is that ‘my readers will be reminded that librarians serve as stewards of human memory – without librarians, we lose perhaps our most important windows into the human journey.’
I loved this ambitious, lengthy novel – it is nothing less than a dazzling love letter celebrating the power of the novel as a symbol of hope and enduring human connection. Simply put, Doerr explains ‘A text – a book- is a resting place for the memories of people who have lived before. A way for the memory to stay fixed after the soul has travelled on.’
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr is published by Fourth Estate, 640 pages.