Review: Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr
Hello, this was just an unbelievably excellent, wonderful, moving book. I adored every single paragraph and am angry at myself for racing through it in two days instead of giving myself time to savour it, because that's how just amazingly perfect it was.
This is a complicated story to summarise, because it's basically three books in one, each set on their own timeline: the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and its aftermath; the build-up to an environmentally-motivated terrorist attack in Idaho in 2020; and a thirteen-year-old girl on a spaceship in the early twenty-second century on a long-term mission to colonise an outer exoplanet that might support life in the same way as an, its heavily hinted at, an utterly destroyed Earth once did. Each of the separate timelines impact each other, because they're all linked by a presumed-lost first-century Ancient Greek fable called Cloud Cuckoo Land; the general themes and overarching messages of each timeline broadly echo each other and serve as intrinsically linked foils and counterparts of each other; and each timeline draws inspiration from easily recognisable, if you're a nerd like me, literary and film traditions. Stylistically and thematically, as well as its sweeping sense of atmosphere and setting, especially the way the third timeline (the twenty-second century one) draws the whole book to a conclusion, this novel reminds me a lot of Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (another book that everyone should read, honestly) - survival is not enough. This is a book broadly about how humans seek meaning even in the face of apocalyptic fears of failure, and the power and necessity of books to survive. It's a book about heroism and loss and family and grief and homesickness and loneliness and the always-present human urge to quest. It's an epic, but a peaceful one - a book that's about the entirety of humanity's span on Earth, past and present and future, but never feels unwieldy or that it's grappling with the too-much it's set itself to do. It's a book about a lot of things, but mainly it's a book about a book. I love books about books! Right, anyway, I'm not giving a good summary of the plot, it's impossible to accurately summarise because it's so broad in scope, just please go read it immediately it's so unbelievably good.
Anthony Doerr is, like Colson Whitehead, one of those authors who has just got absolute mastery over his craft - some of his sentences left me floored in how quietly, subtly, unassumingly beautiful they were. His choice of vocabulary is always exquisitely precise, so the image that gets conjured up in your mind is exactly what he wants it to be while also remaining literary and evocative. The sense of setting and place is perfectly calibrated in each of the timelines, and considering how much geographical space and sweeps of time he is drawing upon, that's quite an achievement - for the siege of Constantinople to feel as vividly well-drawn and present as a little girl caught in a somehow even more twisted version of 2001: A Space Odyssey is a feat of authorial masterclass that actually makes me quite angry, it's so impressive.
The pacing and narrative drive is inch-perfect. Every emotional climax is given the appropriate amount of space and time to build, so every big moment hits exactly the way it should without ever feeling overwrought or underbaked. I especially liked the way Doerr structured the timelines as starting with the all-important beat, and then building both backwards and forwards again throughout the novel to create the context and the backstory that gets us to that climax - and then taking us down the other end of it, unravelling the impact that those narrative high points had on the characters and their mental lives and their journeys. And Anthony Doerr very expertly avoids the easy, satisfying finish of tying all the timelines together in an obvious way - nothing is cheaply arrived at in this novel; everything feels earned even as it doesn't slide into the mentally obvious or pat boxes that a lesser author might have used to give a more stereotypically satisfying ending.
The characterisation is brilliant as well. Every single character, even the ones that only appear in a few paragraphs, feel real and fully-formed and are important to the unravelling of all these plot threads.
Everything that happens in this novel is deliberate - not a single piece of imagery, or structural formation, or word is out of place. Some of it, such as the frontispiece of every chapter, you only notice when you pick up on the way Doerr is changing the presentation of it throughout the novel, and once you pick up on these choices they start to clue you in on how the pieces are coming together. Even the little touches within the story, like the fact that the tech company that built the spaceship is called Ilium Corporation and the spaceship is called the Argos, and the paradigm of the novel is a lost Greek novel, is important to the folding together of all the storylines.
Look, this book is just so unbelievably incredible. Please stop reading this review and read the book instead. I loved it so much, it's definitely going to be in my top of 2021 list, and I wish I could go back and discover it for the first time again and again and again.