Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
Fourth Estate, pb, £8.18
Reviewed by Kevan Manwaring
Cloud Cuckoo Land (2021) by Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Anthony Doerr is a storytelling tour-de-force that should appeal to anyone in love with fabulation and the fantastic. It is a novel about stories and a praise-song to libraries, archives, and the endless possibilities of language and the imagination.
The multilinear narrative is set over three time periods – medieval Constantinople, modern-day Idaho, and aboard an intergenerational starship in the not-too-distant future. Each era is focalized through the travails of a small cast of characters: a Christian seamstress and Muslim cattle herder caught on either side of the siege of Constantinople; an ecofanatic malcontent and octogenarian autodidact stuck in a hostage situation in a public library in Lakeport, Idaho; and teenage interstellar native who finds herself aboard a plague-bound starship. Confinement, restriction, and obligation are explored through these three alternating threads – and linking them all together is an apparently lost Greek epic by Diogenes, about a foolhardy traveller who stumbles into a quest for the titular utopia.
Cloud Cuckoo Lands of different calibres motivate all the characters – from a warm bed and hot meal amid war-torn hardship and displacement; the consolatory refuge of a book; an eco-Valhalla for the hard-line martyr; to an Earth-like planet on the far side of the galaxy. Sehnsucht of varying intensities haunts all of the characters, and its presence rather than its fulfilment seems to be fundamental to the human condition, Doerr seems to suggest. We are motivated by what is absent, what is over the horizon, by the unattainable – so many fool-knights on Grail quests that will never be accomplished. And yet, in the striving, in that perpetual, ever-expanding liminal zone between where we are and where we want to be, life is lived. One half riding Baron Munchausen-like to the moon, the other half grounded in the harsh actuality of homegrown terrorism, religious warfare, environmental destruction, the struggles of a single parent raising a child on zero-hour contracts, resource scarcity and pandemics, Doerr’s mercurial novel dances an elegantly fine line between the visionary and the mundane, the didactic and the aesthetic.
Yet, unlike so many ‘literary’ novels, this is eminently readable, has narrative traction, and indeed was kind of addictive. The six hundred plus pages flew by. For a novel that covers so much, that has such scope and depth and daring, it never becomes turgid or preachy. The prose is infused with a delight in storytelling, in the infinite (and redemptive) power of the imagination.
For anyone weary of the world or of world-weary fiction, this is an elixir to restore delight in even the most jaded appetites: it did in mine.
And for something that may seem so frivolous – like so many mainstream ‘fantasy-lite’ novels that exploit tropes of the genre without ever really fully committing, Cloud Cuckoo Land feels like the real deal: a novel of true Fantasy, in the manner of, say, John Crowley’s Little, Big. Multi-layered but not dense, its architectural structure is never intrusive: it is cathedral-like in its complexity – that is, it never loses sight of the spire. Everything is perfectly balanced, with this single goal always in mind.
Beyond its technical brilliance, the core of the novel seems to be ecological – in the true sense of the word: it explores and celebrates ‘the relation of living organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.’ With its long view of the human story, it is a Fantasy novel of the Anthropocene – relating to humans and their impact upon the environment. It hints at the ultimate Cloud Cuckoo Land – a preindustrial, prelapsarian Earth: ‘an older and undiluted world, when every barn swallow, every sunset, every storm, pulsed with meaning.’ In a way, Doerr’s novel attempts to restore that meaning through an extended act of re-enchantment: by making us appreciate the everyday wonder beneath our feet.
It is a novel that lingers in the mind and heart.