By: Anthony Doerr
In the 15th century, an orphan named Anna lives inside the formidable walls of Constantinople. She learns to read, and in this ancient city, famous for its libraries, she finds what might be the last copy of a centuries-old book, the story of Aethon, who longs to be turned into a bird so that he can fly to a utopian paradise in the sky. Outside the walls is Omeir, a village boy, conscripted with his beloved oxen into the army that will lay siege to the city.
In the present day, in a library in Idaho, octogenarian Zeno rehearses children in a play adaptation of Aethon’s story, preserved against all odds through centuries. Tucked among the library shelves is a bomb, planted by a troubled, idealistic teenager, Seymour. This is another siege.
And in a not-so-distant future, on the interstellar ship Argos, Konstance is alone in a vault, copying on scraps of sacking the story of Aethon, told to her by her father.
The threads of similarity between All the Light We Cannot See and Cloud Cuckoo Land are strong in the beginning but quickly shift. We deal with so many more characters in this story with Omeir and Anna in the 1400s war of Constantinople between the Christian and the Ottomans, Zeno and Seymour in modern-day (with flashbacks to Zeno as a Vietnam POW), and finally Konstance in the distant future living on a generation ship hurtling through space. With so many more perspectives, we get less time with each individual character and therefore build less of a connection with them. Even so, Doerr handles the time we do have with purpose and we learn quickly about each of the character’s motivations and passions to the point where they feel tangible and real.
There is a lot of pain and loss in this narrative which packs an emotional punch to the chest. All the characters deal with their own struggles but the one thing they have in common is the story of Cloud Cuckoo Land which each of them finds in a unique way. The overarching theme is how easy it is for stories to be lost to time. Once there is only one copy left, it must be protected at all costs or it will cease to exist. Books are immortal so long as someone cares for them. The story, “Cloud Cuckoo Land”, despite all odds, is carried through history in the loving hands of the people most impacted by it. Some parts are irreparably damaged, so meaning must be derived from what’s left. In a way, that makes the story even more personal. Additionally, were it not for the determination of a small group separated by hundreds of years, Konstance never would have found the story. She never would have learned all she did while on the Argos. A multi-generational butterfly effect if there ever was one and a way of showing that stories are timeless as can have a profound impact for years to come.
As an able-bodied person, I don’t have the right to talk about how Doerr depicts disabilities. From my perspective, he appears respectful and handles topics such as blindness and cleft palates with gentle dexterity. The characters are always written as generally sympathetic individuals who talk about how the world views them. Omeir was an incredibly likable character who was misunderstood since cleft palates were seen as a curse in the 1400s. Members of his own family openly made fun of him for how he looked, but he developed into a morally upright person with a big heart. It’s also possible that someone could say that Doerr, who is also an able-bodied person, is patronizing or offensive in such a depiction. I can’t speak to that. I can just tell you that I liked the way it was handled.
Anthony Doerr really is an incredible author who writes with a depth of feeling that much more experienced authors should aspire to. I admire his ability to simultaneously stab me in the heart and give me hope. This novel is such a weird one to classify in terms of genre because I think of it as historical fiction, contemporary thriller, and sci-fi horror all wrapped into one. Cloud Cuckoo Land really has it all, but it takes patience to get through at 622 pages. I thought it was well worth the read and, if nothing else, is incredibly memorable.
Overall rating: 4.5