Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor
CLOUD CUCKOO LAND. By Anthony Doerr. Scribner. 622 pages. $30, hardcover.
In his latest novel, Anthony Doerr has challenged himself with a monumental task: Establish three distinct storylines, set apart from each other by more than 700 years, two continents and millions of miles of outer space, and then draw the storylines tightly together with remnants of an ancient tale that its own author describes as “so ludicrous, so incredible, that you’ll never believe a word of it.” And, to present these storylines in what appears to be random, non-chronological order.
He meets the challenge wonderfully.
Cloud Cuckoo Land, Doerr’s first novel since his 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See, is centered on an ancient text of the same name. In it, the protagonist Aethon, a goatherder determined to find paradise in the clouds, employs the help of a witch’s assistant to transform himself into a bird. But things go wrong, and he first becomes a mule and then a fish.
Many years after it was written, portions of the ancient text are discovered by Anna, an orphaned 12-year-old who, along with her sister, is living in Constantinople during a 15th century siege. They are essentially indentured servants working long days sewing and embroidering sacred garments that will, of course, be useless once the Christian city falls to the Sultan. Amid the turmoil, Anna, who is considered unreliable and untalented by her masters, has secretly taught herself to read, and she comforts her dying sister with episodes from the text.
In Lakeport, Idaho, Zeno, a dark-skinned boy orphaned after his father’s death in World War II, is an outcast, much as Anna was. He, too, finds a refuge in books, at the local library. Fast forward to 2020 and Zeno is an octogenarian directing a group of fifth-graders as they prepare to present “Cloud Cuckoo Land” on a makeshift stage in the library’s activity room. They are working from 24 folios of the original tale and are unsure of the order in which those folios are designed to be presented.
Finally, there is Konstance. In the 22nd century, she is a 10-year-old who was born on a spaceship that for six decades has been traveling to an Earth-like planet light-years away. The ship contains a digitized library that supposedly contains everything known to man when the ship left Earth. She, too, is an outsider because she prefers to wander through the library’s Google Earth-like archives of places on Earth than to studies of the sciences that will be needed on this new planet.
As with Marie-Laure and Werner from All The Light, all of Doerr’s primary characters have their heads in the clouds, so to speak. They are not “like the other kids”; they read, they wonder. And their stories, standing on their own, are worth the read.
In multi-storyline novels such as this, I often find myself enjoying one line more than the others, or one much less than the others. This did not happen here. Doerr had me fully invested in each character and storyline, even as I did find myself asking where it was all headed and how he would tie the lines together.
The good news is that the story does come together, and in a surprising way. The plot twists at the end are as good as any of those in the highly touted mysteries I’ve read this year.
Looking back, it turns out to be a rather simple story with a wonderful theme: That an ancient book filled with wisdom can enlighten people through the centuries.
It is a beautifully complex novel, written with great clarity and grace. No doubt, Cloud Cuckoo Land will be included in the 10-best of 2021 lists that many critics will publish this month; it’s already on mine.