Thursday, December 8, 2022

Review: Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

I still have the very first library card that was ever issued in my name. I was just a little, bitty thing and I'm sure the card had restrictions on it as to what I was allowed to check out (as well as being tied to my mother's account). And even though I've had many others through the years, that first one remains very cherished. I now have enough books around me in my home to qualify as my own library so I don't often go to my local library anymore but I will never forget the wonderful feeling that libraries and books gave me as they opened up a whole new world beyond the one I was living in. Anthony Doerr too obviously feels this same reverence and thankfulness for libraries and books as is evidenced by his long and sprawling novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, which is first and foremost an ode to the way that stories sustain human beings and how librarians and other story tellers have kept those stories alive for centuries.

Weaving together five seemingly disparate stories ranging from the fifteenth century well into an imagined future, Doerr uses as his connective tissue, a fictional story written by Diogenes in the first century, the tale of Aethon searching for the magical, mystical, heaven-like Cloud Cuckoo Land. Each of the five people we subsequently follow through the pages comes to a connection with this story in some way. There's Anna in fifteenth century Constantinople. She's a rather unskilled seamstress working in a workshop but her heart is in the reading lessons she finagles from a teacher. Literacy opens the world to her. There's Omeir, a child born with a cleft palate and viewed as bad luck, whose family is cast out of their village because of his facial difference and the superstitions of the fifteenth century. Raised by his grandfather and suckled on the stories his grandfather tells, he becomes an oxen driver, raising two incredibly powerful beasts. There's Zeno who grows through the years from a child realizing his sexuality to a prisoner of war in Korea and finally to be an elderly man leading a school children's performance of the play of Cloud Cuckoo Land. There's Seymour who is pretty clearly neurodivergent and finds his peace in nature. He desperately grieves the devastation of nature that he sees all around him as developers eat up the places most important to him and he plots ways to fight back. And there's Konstance in the future. She was born on the space ship Argos that is traveling to another planet. She is an interim link in the chain of the future hope for humanity. She has never been unquestioning and her father cultivates her curiousity.

The threads of the different stories take a while to come together so the reader struggles to make sense of things in the beginning. The plot jumps from timeline to timeline in fairly short chapters which ultimately makes sense but is a major contribution to the initial struggle to sink into the story as a whole. Each of the plot lines is quite different, even those that take place in the same time period, but they all highlight the importance of story, the strength and resilience of human beings, and the power of those who keep or hold story for all of us. The writing is detailed and incredibly descriptive and Doerr does a fantastic job drawing time and place. There are portions of the book that have little to no action and so drag a bit and certain of the plot threads are more interesting than others (I personally had a fondness for Konstance's and Anna's early stories) but overall this is a far reaching, ambitious novel that lovers of literary fiction will devour.

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