Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

If you loved All the Light We Cannot See as much as I did, you'll be delighted to hear that Anthony Doerr will be releasing a new and equally epic novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, on September 28th. His latest book is structurally more complex as it is narrated in multiple voices from antiquity, the recent past, and the future. It’s an ode to ancient texts, to libraries, and most of all, to readers.

The historical storyline follows two teenagers on opposite sides of a walled city during the 1453 siege of Constantinople. Anna is an orphan who should be embroidering birds and flowers for Christian priests but instead sneaks off to learn how to read Greek. Beyond the fortified walls, Omeir is more concerned in the wellbeing of his oxen than in the plunders of war. A birth defect makes it easier for him to win the love of animals than of people outside his family, but of all the characters, Omeir is the least bitter and the most capable and generous.

The contemporary storyline is set in Idaho and alternates between a troubled youth, Seymour, who befriends a threatened owl, and an 86-year-old Korean War veteran, Zeno, who is struggling to translate fragments of an ancient Greek text. I found it interesting that the "contemporary" storyline was set in February 2020, right before the pandemic. Perhaps to avoid its absence from the narrative? Some savvy editor or perhaps the author himself might have adjusted the dates right before the galleys were printed. I'm guessing that the pandemic will divide literature like World War II did in the last century.

The futuristic story is narrated only from the perspective of Konstance, a teenage girl on an arklike spaceship to save humanity from the climate crisis. To avoid spoilers, I won't say much about this storyline other than it was the most compelling and had a brilliant plot twist that took even a seasoned reader like me by surprise. My only criticism was I would have liked to have learned more about Konstance's future. The other storylines were better resolved, but all three were woven together well. 

Cloud Cuckoo Land was brilliantly crafted. Although the galley was 618 pages and covered equally weighty material, it was a fast read with short cliffhanger chapters and alternating narratives. I read most of it over one weekend, and it was a welcome escape from the current worries of the world, even though it dealt with many of them. Like Harry Potter and the Seraphina series, Cloud Cuckoo Land brought me back to the childhood joy of getting lost in the alternative universe of a book. Although Doerr's novel was written for adults, it would crossover very well to teenagers. 

With its time hopping stories and linked motifs, Cloud Cuckoo Land reminded me of David Mitchell’s masterpiece, Cloud Atlas (was the "cloud" in the goofy title an homage?) The environmental themes were also similar to The Overstory by Richard Powers. Following a book through time reminded me of another favorite, People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. Even so, Cloud Cuckoo Land was original and will appeal to all book lovers.

"Each of these books, child, is a door, a gateway to another place and time. You have your whole life in front of you, and for all of it, you'll have this. It will be enough, don't you think?"

Galley courtesy of Main Point Books 
(you can preorder Cloud Cuckoo Land from this indie bookstore's website)

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@Barrie Summy