Content warnings: war, death, animal death, violence, ableism, homophobia
Perfect for when you’re in the mood for: something a little intellectual but engaging
Maybe in the old days, men did walk the earth as beasts, and a city of birds floated in the heavens between the realms of men and gods. Or maybe, like all lunatics, the shepherd made his own truth, and so for him, true it was. But let us turn to his story now, and decide his sanity for ourselves
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr is a masterfully woven collection of stories told through vignettes from the perspectives of five different people: Anna, a young embroideress in Constantinople; Omeir, A disfigured child in the mountains of Bulgaria; Zeno, a Korean-War veteran in Idaho; Seymour, a neurodivergent child from the same town; and Konstance, a child on the Argos, a ship taking a cross-generational journey to resettle humanity on a new planet.
Each of these stories are tied together by the fictional ancient novel ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’, excerpts from which are interspersed throughout the book. It is an absurd story about a shepherd who is turned into a variety of animals in his search for a non-existent city in the clouds. At first it seems ridiculous, yet as the characters in turn find the story and come to find hope and meaning in it, I found myself coming to enjoy it as well. As a tool, it worked particularly well to unite each story through time, first found in Constantinople, translated and republished in Idaho, and reconstructed again on the Argos. I found it endearing how, no matter how close the story came to being lost, it never quite was.
I did find the plot confusing at first as the story jumps not only between stories, but between time periods within a story. It took me about a third of the novel to get my head around and was quite frustrating at first. But once I’d gotten used to the characters and plot it became easier to follow. Still, I feel like I missed a lot of important information at the beginning because of this. And yet, in the final chapters of the book the stories came together like the final piece of a puzzle was put in place. Each was undeniably connected and intertwined with the others, and the overarching plot and timeline of Doerr’s world finally became clear, and the sense of satisfaction when I realised this cannot be understated.
Doerr primarily aims to address the importance of literature throughout time; how it can unite people and bring hope. He also briefly touches on the issue of climate change (Konstance is on the Argos because humanity destroyed their own world), but this ended up being mostly buried by plot. I did, however, love the exploration of how people come to be who they are. Each of the characters, at the beginning of their stories, show disinterest, fear or even disdain for certain traits which they ultimately adopt, and that transformation is incredibly interesting to watch. For example, Konstance is told of the mad man before she was born who tried to dig his way out of the Argo. And yet in the final act of her story, she is tearing away the inside of the ship to escape from what she now knows is a lie. The most dramatic example of this is Seymour, a neurodivergent child whose grief and ostracisation leads him to turn to eco-terrorism.
I did enjoy the leisurely, wandering pace of the book, more focused on description and conceptual consideration than plot. But readers who prefer fast-paced books may find it a drag to get through.
Final rating: 4 stars. I would recommend it, but readers must be warned it may not be an easy read.