by Anthony Doerr. New York: Scribner, 2021. 626pp.
A Review by D. Margaret Hoffman
Because this book is so long, I wrote about it in sections. Worried that I’d forget current impressions by the time I reached the end, I recorded some of them as I went along. This review, then, reflects my reading and will appear in three installments. Buckle in.
I am nearly two-hundred pages in and I am struggling to hold all the moving parts in my head.
In All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr’s 2014 best-selling, Pulitzer Prize winning novel, the author carefully alternates the stories of Werner and Marie-Laure. They grow up at the same time in different but adjacent countries. We get into a rhythm and before long come to expect a chapter about her followed by a chapter about him followed by a chapter about her, etc., throughout the book until their paths eventually and inevitably cross. Engaging and easy to follow.
Cloud Cuckoo Land is like that, except for the easy-to-follow part. Instead of one novel with two alternating stories, like Light, there are three “novels” (for lack of a better term), each with its own plot and alternating structure of chapters. These “novels” are then sectioned like grapefruits and arranged in rotation with each other, creating, between the covers of this book, a swirling universe of humanity, a system of disparate worlds at once vastly different and eerily familiar.
At this point, (I’m only about one-third through), none of the stories intersect. Because they are set in different eras of history, I expect that they will stay separate physically and that I will have to look for more metaphorical connections. The three “novels” are loosely joined by a fourth story, an ancient Greek story of Aethon. Told by Diogenes (but created by Doerr), Aethon is a boy who wants to be a bird but is turned into a donkey instead.
So we have young Anna and Omeir in 15th century Constantinople. We have old Zeno and young Seymour in early 21st century Lakeport, Idaho. And we have young Konstance and her family barreling through space somewhere in the future aboard the spacecraft Argos in Mission Year 65. All of them are somehow connected to the story of Aethon, the telling of which unfolds in intertwining chapters of its own.
Each story is rich and full of Doerr’s glorious specific details and descriptions which makes for wonderful reading. But it also makes for difficult remembering as we are tossed from episode to episode.
It’s a lot.
So far, we have concentrated mostly on the past and present stories and a few things are clear. The characters are all outliers, misfits and people who struggle to live happily in the worlds in which they have been placed. And there are books involved, libraries and books and dreams attached to them—people who find their lives improved by reading and seek it out. Well some. Sort of.
You see my dilemma.
I’ll plod one.