It’s been a long time coming, but a treasure is worth waiting for.
Anthony Doerr enraptures with “Cloud Cuckoo Land” a gorgeously written novel worthy of a studied read. The effort necessary to disseminate where Doerr is taking us rewards us as we enter the intricately detailed worlds he creates, the realistic and the fantastical.
The scope of this brilliant book is mind-boggling, a unique novel quite different from his Pulitzer Prize winner “All The Light You Cannot See,” which I count among my top 10 favorite books, a World War II story that moved me to my core.
There are several settings in “Cloud Cuckoo Land” part of the book taking place in Idaho in 2020, as Seymour, a teen on the spectrum enters a small town library with bombs in his backpack. Seymour has never fit in and bears a grudge against progress that’s encroaching on the community and robbing him of the woods where he escapes for solace to commune in the company of owl, his “trusty friend.”
Seymour thinks the library, where he’s spent a lot of time in his short life, will be vacant, but a dress rehearsal for “The Birds,” by Aristophanes, is underway, upper elementary children running through lines with Zeno, an 86-year-old Korean War veteran and prisoner of war survivor. Orphaned as a child, Zeno’s backstory is a sad, but uplifting. He and Seymour have more in common than either of them realize.
Light years ahead of time, Konstance a 14-year-old girl struggles too. She’s on an interstellar journey, eventually encased in a “circular vault” her father places her in to save her life. Konstance’s only companion is an “Alexa” type machine named Sybil programed to keep her healthy and act as her moral compass. After being forcefully separated from her parents, Konstance has come upon writings that may provide a clue to the mystery of her strange existence.
The other two major characters, Anna and Omeir, live in and near ancient Constantinople. Anna is an orphan; she and her sister are raised by nuns in a convent there, serving as seamstresses to a violent ruler. The walled city comes under siege in 1453, an equally demonic leader determined to destroy the walls and make slaves of the people. Unsuspecting Omeir is forced to join the invading army, a gentle farm boy, an outcast born with a facial deformity.
As Doerr shifts back and forward in time, in short engrossing chapters, each section of the novel is precluded with excerpts from an ancient text, the story of Aethon, a “comic man” searching for an “Oz” a Utopia where he’ll finally find happiness.
What Aethon seeks is what the characters in Doerr’s book desire—freedom from isolation, to love and be loved. Other themes permeate this masterpiece, chief among them the connectivity that comes from literature, alive in books and libraries through the ages. The book is dedicated to “…librarians then, now and in the years to come.”
As I read “Cloud Cuckoo Land” I found myself holding my breath. I was transfixed and remain so at the altar of Doerr—he's written another masterpiece, a timeless epic to be relished, shared and discussed.