Book review: Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr

I don’t review novels very often, but making an exception every once in a while is a good reminder that you can say all kinds of useful things through fiction, and you might reach a lot more people in the process. Cloud Cuckoo Land is a novel with lots to say, and it’s by Anthony Doerr, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his previous book All the Light we Cannot See.

Cloud Cuckoo Land is about a book – sort of. It’s also got war, terrorism, daring escapes, romance, and spaceships. At the heart of it however, is lost Greek myth about a shepherd who seeks a mystical land of eternal plenty – the land of the title. Fragments of this lost book form the backbone of the novel, with the stories of five other characters shaped around it.

These vary greatly. Anna is in Constantinople in 1439, the city threatened by an invading army equipped with new-fangled weaponry of shock and awe. Omeir is her contemporary, and a disfigured outcast. Zeno is drafted into the Korean war, where he struggles with his identity in a prisoner of war camp. Seymour is a child with autism, whose actions later in life will profoundly impact others in the story. And finally, Konstance, who is on a spaceship sent out in hope from a dying earth. Each of these characters encounters the lost Greek novel somehow, learning from it, protecting it, passing it on.

All five of the characters’ stories are riveting in their own way, each one fully realised and sensitively handled. You know that feeling with a novel with multiple storylines, when you turn the page and realise the next chapter is about character X, and your heart sinks a little? I didn’t get that with Cloud Cuckoo Land, and there is magic in the way Doerr winds them together across the ages, all the pieces slotting in as the book concludes.

For lovers of books and libraries, there is much to enjoy. Because this is a work of fiction and nothing is spelled out, others will find entirely different themes to explore, around history and identity. Or the sharing of stories and the stewardship of knowledge through time. Or the unresolvable mystery of something lost forever – and how, at a time of decline, that calls our attention to all we can save.

Amongst much else, there are also recurring themes of consumerism, greed and enough. One character witnesses the destruction of war, both at the wider scale of cleared landscapes, and the micro scale as he loses animals that are precious to him – the sacrifices demanded by the powerful. Another is changed forever when he loses the forest he finds solace in, as developers fell the trees for a new housing estate. Konstance, in a spaceship she was born in and will die in, is the inheritor of an exhausted planet, one she can only visit in the Google Earth-like simulator in the ship’s library.

And then there is Aethon, the Greek shepherd, who loses himself so profoundly in his quest for a life of ease and plenty.

Throughout the book, the characters’ lives are shaped by other people’s greed and power – dragged into other men’s wars, struggling with precarious work, radicalised by a system that has left them behind. In the midst of all that, Doerr keeps drawing our attention towards what makes life truly worthwhile – care, absorbing work, shared passions, the joy of learning and discovery. And always, there in the background, the invitation back towards “the green beauty of the broken world”.

“What you already have is better than what you so desperately seek”, writes Doerr at one point, a powerful statement in a culture that is always running, always craving – and at the same time, always undermining the wealth it has already accumulated, through inequality and environmental destruction.

That’s pretty much the message of my book with Katherine Trebeck, The Economics of Arrival. You can have an exhaustively referenced academic treatise and an epic novel essentially share the same message, and that’s why it’s worth reviewing one from time to time.

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