Anna, an orphan in 15th-century Constantinople; Omeir, a poor woodcutter’s son, his cleft palate proof of a demon’s presence; Zeno, an old man in modern-day Lakeport, Idaho; Seymour, an autistic Generation-Z teenager raised in that same town; Konstance, a girl aboard a spaceship in some distant future with only a tangle of conscious wires to keep her company; Aethon, a fictional man whose story connects everyone else through time and space. These are the characters around which Anthony Doerr’s “Cloud Cuckoo Land” revolves.
“Cloud Cuckoo Land” is a deeply ambitious book. Six stories spread across four ages, three nations and two worlds. It is part contemporary, part historical, part science fiction, part myth. For most authors, attempting a feat like this would result in a jumbled mess of plot lines and a desperate need to simplify.
But Anthony Doerr is not most authors. The Pulitzer Prize winner for “All the Light We Cannot See” has a truly extraordinary ability to weave together different lives, deftly pulling the strings to cause them to crash into one another before spiraling away again.
In chapters of only a few pages, full of prose that beautifully contrasts the stark humanness in each scene, Doerr manages to explore six multifaceted individuals — their ambitions, their families, their struggles and their fears — without losing sight of the common thread around which all of their lives pivot: a story from a different time, one that promises more than what their lives have given them. They each come to find solace in the fable of Aethon, the “dimwit” sheepherder who longed to become a bird so he could fly to Cloud Cuckoo Land, a magical city in the sky.
For a story so grand in scope, the book still feels intimate and personal. It takes a great gift to make an audience sympathize with every character — to worry for them, care for them and forgive them — and it’s a gift Doerr thankfully possesses. There is no character whose chapters I had to slog through (a common occurrence in multi-narrative books), none that I grew disinterested in or lost my patience with.
Each time the narrative shifted back to a character who hadn’t been heard from in a while, it felt like catching a new episode of a well-liked TV show: short, sweet, and then you change the channel and forget about it until next week. Though there were moments when it was difficult to switch focus from one character’s narrative to another, and I was tempted to skip ahead so I could continue one story, I’m glad I didn’t. Doerr knows what he’s doing. Trust the process.
In a characteristic fashion, Doerr centralizes the conflict between sets of characters. There’s Seymour, who attempts to bomb a library in which Zeno is directing a children’s play, and then there’s Omeir, who’s drafted to help bring down the city walls behind which Anna lives. Sworn enemies, who are bound to one another by pain instead of love, can nonetheless find the humanity in each other.
Despite the complexity — Greek mythology, wars fought half a millennia apart and some spaceships thrown in for good measure — this is fundamentally a story of seeing one another and acknowledging whatever it is that makes us so intrinsically similar across all barriers.
We meet Konstance as she’s bent over the scraps of paper she salvages from her food bags, stitching together the history of humanity in the limited hours of light she’s given each day; the makeshift pen and ink with which she writes is a lifeline to a world outside her sterile room. A millennium before, Anna learns in secret how to read, sneaking candles into the closet-sized room she shares with her sister so she can pore over the Odyssey every night, desperate for an escape from her miserably boring life. In another time, Zeno fights for democracy in Korea while Omeir fights for his family’s honor and his kingdom in Constantinople. Each is an entirely distinct path that somehow mirrors all the others. Each person is searching for Cloud Cuckoo Land.
Upon closing the book, it’s impossible not to wonder how those who come next will perceive us. Which of our stories will last, which will vanish and which will only ever be remembered by an unlikely few, our words still forming invisible bonds between strangers long after we’re gone?
Daily Arts Writer Brenna Goss can be reached at email@example.com.