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Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

A nthony Doerr’s writing makes me want to give up any pretence at being a writer and find something else to do with my life.

I’ve read many excellent books since returning to the UK and immersing myself in the magical world of paperbacks, and I’m immensely grateful to all those authors whose words have brought me such joy and transported me to different worlds through multiple eras.

And none more so than Anthony Doerr.

Cloud Cuckoo Land is the third of his novels I’ve read in as many months (luckily for me, Jack seems to be on a mission to read everything Doerr has ever published and is unable to walk past a bookshop without browsing by author under ‘D’) and each one has been wildly different. Set in disparate locations and times, the only similarity between the three is the mastery of their storytelling.

Cloud Cuckoo Land takes that mastery, adds wordsmith skills that the Bard himself would envy, and produces an epic tale spanning centuries and featuring seemingly completely unrelated characters interlinked with extracts from an 1800-year-old codex which has been translated by one of the characters.

Synopsis of Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

I n an interstellar generation ship named Argos, eighty-six people are hurtling through space some six decades after Earth ceased to be able to maintain life. Amongst them is five-year-old Konstance whose curiosity for the planet they left, is becoming an obsession.

In 15th-century Constantinople, seven-year-old orphan, Anna, lives with her sister Maria, in abject poverty, in an embroidery house run by a ruthless, drunken bully who treats the orphan girls like they’re worthless donkeys. Anna is no good at embroidery and is consumed with curiosity about an ancient fresco which depicts a world beyond the walls of her city.

200 miles northwest of the city, 12-year-old Omeir lives in a woodcutter’s cottage. Born with a cleft lip, the boy is both reviled and feared by the villagers but he finds solace in the twin oxen he has raised and with whom he shares an unspoken language. When the ambitious sultan’s heralds pass by and spot the powerful oxen and the strange looking boy who controls them, Omeir is forced to accompany them to lay siege to Constantinople.

Finally in Lakeport, Oregon in 2020, 17-year-old Seymour carries a rucksack containing two bombs into the public library where 86-year-old Zeno is supervising a group of fifth graders who are rehearsing a play of the ancient script Zeno has been painstakingly translating. Having already shot and wounded one of the librarians who now lies bleeding at the foot of the stairs leading to the children’s rehearsal room, Seymour is poised to ring a number which will ignite the bombs in his rucksack.

Over the course of the novel, we track the lives of these five characters as they follow their destinies, unaware of the thread that binds them, the fantastical tale woven long before any of them existed, which talks of one man’s quest to find a glorious land in the clouds where there is no pain, no hunger, no death, and eternal sunshine – Cloud Cuckoo Land.

My review

L ike any epic tale, it’s difficult to keep hold of the various strands at first and, caught up in the artistry of the narrative, I missed several key clues in the early text. Luckily, every evening when we finished reading, Jack would ask where I was up to and if I’d missed a connection, he hinted at it which kept me on track.

But as the book continues, the threads become more visible. Doerr uses the ancient script of Cloud Cuckoo Land to bind the disparate elements and lead the way in bringing the narratives together. As each tale unfolds it brings its own drama and mystery.

What exactly is going on in the Argos as it hurtles blindly through space? Will the besieged city of Constantinople be able to withstand the constant barrage against its walls, and what will happen to Anna and Maria if it falls? Will Omeir and his beloved oxen survive the arduous journey and the interminable siege, and will Zeno and the children survive Seymour’s bomb, or will they all become just one more statistic in the US tally of gun fatalities?

The dual climaxes, one in the Lakeport library and the other on the Argos, hold the reader’s attention to the very last and in the end, the threads that bind all the characters together are neatly tied off.

In my mind, Anthony Doerr is one of the best authors of our time and I’m very much looking forward to Jack’s next purchase.


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Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • We seem to be reading the same books, Andi (some of them I’ve read because of your recommendations). I loved Cloud ‘Cuckoo Land, and ‘All the Light We Cannot See’, and ‘The Sweetness of Water, enjoyed ‘Still Life’, and ‘ ‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’, and quite enjoyed ‘Lesson in Chemistry’.
    Have you read Ian McEwan? I recommend ‘Atonement’ and ‘Lessons’ … + anything and everything by Paul Auster, David Mitchell, Emily St. John Mandel, Ishiguro, Murakami …

    • I think I’ve read some Ian McEwan but it was so long ago I really can’t recall so I’ll definitely take your recommendations. And I’ll check out your author recommendations too. The only one I’ve read is Ishiguro who I’m a fan of. I enjoyed Klara and the Sun which was one of your recommendations.

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