We know Anthony Doerr, don’t we? We know him from Memory Wall, we know him from All The Light We Cannot See. We also know him from The Shell Collector and About Grace. But even though we know him from those books and cherish those books, on first glimpse Cloud Cuckoo Land is a harder sell. It’s Doerr’s longest book for one thing, at least as far as page count is concerned (although All The Light We Cannot See’s word count is apparently longer). It’s also slightly dizzying when you try to explain it. If you want the shorthand, this feels a little like Anthony Doerr doing a David Mitchell. Cloud Atlas Cuckoo Land, if you will.
“Guardian 1: “Thought it will seem simple at first, it’s actually quite complicated.”
First of all, there is Konstance, copying scraps of an ancient story told to her by her father aboard an interstellar ship. There is also Zeno, an octogenarian, in more or less our time, rehearsing school children in a version of the story copied by Konstance aboard the ship. There is Seymour, a troubled young man looking to plant a bomb in the same library Zeno and the children are rehearsing in. Five hundred years before all of that, there is Anna, a young woman in the midst of the great sacking of Constantinople (and Omeir, an oxherd busy transporting a tremendous canon, whose life intersects with Anna). The novel finds these people at a certain point in their lives but also takes time to tell you the stories of their lives up to this point (and so, for example, you have Seymour and Zeno in the library but you also have Zeno as a younger man, Seymour as a child).
“I was a fish inside a sea inside a bigger fish inside a bigger sea, and I wondered if the world itself swam also inside the belly of a much greater fish, all of us fish inside fish inside fish…”
Additionally, there is the story, the story that is read by Konstance, performed by the children in the library, read by Anna in Constantinople, which we perceive in fragments alongside all of these other stories, the story of Aethon by Antonius Diogenes. Which is itself made up by Anthony Doerr, although Diogenes himself is a real historical person. Doerr has described Cloud Cuckoo Land as “my attempt at a literary-sci-fi-mystery-young-adult-historical-morality novel.” He has also said it’s basically five novels in one with the Diogenes’ story functioning as a plus one. If you’re coming to this fresh from David Keenan’s recent novel, The Monument Maker (another novel comprising novels within novels), you might be asking yourself, am I ready for another book like that? Coming to Cloud Cuckoo Land with all of this knowledge might make you feel the way you would at the foot of a mountain ahead of a major climb. Deep intake of breath. But the truth is, when you start in, when you get to become acquainted with Konstance and Zeno and Seymour and Anna and Omeir, you relax. You’re in good hands. Doerr knows what he is doing.
“Guardian 2: No, no, it will seem complicated at first, but it’s actually quite simple.”
What initially seems a bit of an uphill struggle quickly (more quickly than you’d likely expect) changes into a straightforward and compelling read. Doerr “spin(s) threads of ruin through the fabric of [his character’s] lives2, all to make a song for generations to come.” The counterpoint of Zeno and Seymour (Zeno himself once a soldier, Seymour a somewhat troubled activist) might have been enough to sustain a novel on their own in other hands; but the echoes that exist between Anna, Zeno and Konstance (and even Omeir And Seymour) make for subtle and satisfying readerly touch points throughout the book. And if the tales are themselves enough to make Cloud Cuckoo Land enjoyable, the writing – which exists apart as a thing that Doerr is exceptional at – lifts the whole to fashion a novel that is more than the sum of its parts.
“…he realises 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 part of the problem is to be human.”
If you were to force us at gunpoint, to answer the old ‘which is better, this book or his last book’, we’d err on the side of saying All the Light We Cannot See is better, in that All the Light We Cannot See has more focused impact. But then Cloud Cuckoo Land feels more ambitious and more audacious in some senses. Doerr is pushing himself and not resting on his laurels. So, basically, what you lose on the curves you gain on the turns, as it were. And really, the most important question you could ask is: if I enjoyed All the Light We Cannot See, do you think I would enjoy Cloud Cuckoo Land? The answer to that is, in our view, a resounding yes.
Any Cop?: It’s a rich old tapestry of a novel, a work to bask in, a warm, intoxicating fug of smells and flavours and sights and sounds. A book to lose yourself in and emerge blinking into the daylight. It’s a big old bowl of soup is what it is, and it’s sure to provide you with a whole heap of comforts as the nights draw in and it starts to get a bit colder.