by Anthony Doerr. New York: Scribner, 2021. 692 pp.
A Review by D. Margaret Hoffman
I’m nearly three hundred pages in—almost half way. The stories seem to have multiplied but really it’s just some time-hopping and the addition of a peripheral character or two.
Connections are emerging as Konstance, the girl of the future hurtling through space to escape a dying earth, is piecing together the story of Aethon by delving into history via her library’s digital atlas. She “visits” Thessaly to retrieve the story which, at the beginning of Doerr’s novel, is being re-enacted at the Lakeport Public Library by a group of 5th graders in a play being directed by Zeno.
We have discovered a great deal about Zeno, including his POW ordeal in China and his relationship with a British prisoner named Rex who etched Greek language stories on the wall of his solitary confinement box.
Seymour, a young man also from Lakeport, has deteriorated in his losing battle with autism as his anger and sensory issues make it increasingly difficult for him to control his behavior. The wooded land behind his home is being developed and his great grey owl who he has named Trustyfriend appears to have been killed.
Aethon, in the story that is forming the backbone of the novel, wanted to be turned into an owl, but was transformed instead into a donkey.
Anna, facing the siege of Constantinople and who has been taught to read by the old man Licinius, has found a repository of books which she steals and sells to Italian scribes. When the scribes flee in advance of the siege, she begins to read a book she had stolen for them. It is writing that she recognizes and she begins reading a story of someone experiencing a transformation where he expects to see feathers but instead sees hooves.
And I haven’t even mentioned Omeir.
This book is a commitment. I love the writing and the characters and stories as they unfold. I’m having trouble harnessing all the details and holding them in my head, so I’m reading for the love of it, retaining what I can and not sweating the rest. Still, I wish there was at least a Contents page where I could see headings, subheadings and chapter titles laid out in one place. That might give me a visual handle on the structure of this brilliant tangle of stories.
My spirit is willing. My brain (and my eyes) are weak. But I’m in it for the duration. Doerr has not failed me yet.