Review of Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
Doerr's Cloud Cuckoo Land was a complex, heartbreaking, hope-filled, surprising, fascinating read.
Forgetting, he is learning, is how the world heals itself.
In this recent book by Anthony Doerr (author of All the Light We Cannot See), young Anna lives in fifteenth-century Constantinople with her sickly sister, frustrated with endlessly stitching priests' robes--and secretly learning to read stories from the past.
In twentieth-century Idaho, Zeno has lived a long life filled with yearning, war, and unexpected late-in-life academic satisfaction. He is directing a precious group of children in a farcical, heartbreaking play based on the stories Anna read five centuries earlier.
And far in the future, Konstance is in a vault on the spaceship Argos, destined for a distant planet. She largely lives in a vivid virtual world but leaves to scribble scraps of information about the same ancient stories that touched the lives of Anna and Zeno.
The stories in Cloud Cuckoo Land (which is the name of the book-within-a-book) connect these characters across space and time.
It feels unfair to compare Cloud Cuckoo Land to Doerr's beloved and quite different book All the Light We Cannot See, and the books are exceedingly different. But in both books, Doerr demonstrates the ability to bring a reader deep into disparate situations and create emotional investment.
I didn't feel immediately connected to Doerr's story because of the various timelines and characters, but as he began to deeply interweave the stories across time, he also set up rich glimpses into characters' lives at different points in history, and I began to be fascinated by the interconnectedness.
Doerr presents ancient fables (invented by Doerr) that are imagined as having been written by the real-life ancient Greek author Diogenes. Using the stories as a common point between the book's timelines sounded potentially gimmicky--and also potentially confusing--to me at first.
But the stories themselves emerge as not silly, but as elucidative and relevant to each character's hopes, heartbreak, and reckonings with mortality.
"Some stories," she says, "can be both false and true at the same time."
At one point, one of our main characters notes that academic commentaries through the ages have struggled with the famous ancient Cloud Cuckoo Land and its intentions. ("...was Diogenes writing lowbrow comedy or elaborate metafiction?") Was it a simple fable about a fool, or a genius examination of how essential hope is to the world?
Cloud Cuckoo Land also explores devastating environmental destruction, human culpability, cruel wars, rightly earned despair, the gray areas of various complex situations, and, after it all, and within each disparate, desperate situation, cautious and almost embarrassingly persistent hope.
He realizes that the truth is infinitely more complicated, that we are all beautiful even as we are all part of the problem, and that to be a part of the problem is human.
Doerr's characters persist, each in their own way, in trying to make a positive mark on the world and in preserving what is precious to them--and what they imagine will be important to future generations. Even when all hope should be lost, each character in its own way continues to press on. "But what's so beautiful about a fool...," the text says at one point, "is that a fool never knows when to give up."
Cloud Cuckoo Land was consistently beautiful, always interesting, and sometimes heartbreaking.
I received a prepublication digital edition of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Scribner.
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Anthony Doerr also wrote the exquisite All the Light We Cannot See, as well as The Shell Collector, Four Seasons in Rome, Memory Wall, and About Grace.