Cloud Cuckoo Land

‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’ by Andrew Doerr: A Book Review.

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My last read of 2022 was a book I’d been looking forward to reading ever since it was first released in hardback to stellar reviews. With over 23,000 more reviews on Amazon, Cloud Cuckoo Land might be the book least in need of reviewing that I’ve ever written about for GeekDad. Nevertheless, it is so geekily good and I enjoyed it so much, I definitely think I should share the love, just in case you were wondering whether to read it or not. (Yes. Yes you should!)  

What is Cloud Cuckoo Land?

Above all, this is a novel about the power of stories. At the heart of a narrative is an ancient story, a lost novel of Diogenes written in Ancient Greece. This story is called Cloud Cuckoo LandThe novel (of the same name) treats us to multiple perspectives from a number of different time periods, each of which has a connection point with the Diogenes story.

One of these stories is set in the far future. Konstance is a 10-year-old girl on a generational ship, traveling from Earth to a new planet, 592 years away. Other than Konstance, there are four more stories; two linked pairs. One pair centers around the fall of Constantinople and the other, a production of Cloud Cuckoo Land performed by some children in an Idaho tourist town.

The theatre group’s leader is Zeno, an old man who translated Cloud Cuckoo Land from Greek into English; how he came to do so is a huge part of his story. His journey began in Idaho, as a young boy and took him on a harrowing excursion to Korea during the Korean War before he returned home, where he stayed. Trapped by events, he grows ever older, unfulfilled until a pivotal moment. Late in Zeno’s life, in the most contemporary of the book’s narratives, his journey will intersect with the autistic Seymour; a boy ostracized due to his “otherness.”

In Constantinople hundreds of years before, we focus on a girl. Anna is taught to read after being kind to an aging scholar. Her story and that of a young outcast, who has an uncanny way with animals, will intersect during a siege of Constantinople. What follows has repercussions for all the future narrative threads. 

Why Read Cloud Cuckoo Land?

It is a testament to how good Cloud Cuckoo Land is that I stayed up late into the night, after a busy Christmas Day to finish it. It’s a book that constantly begs to be read. From a geeky perspective, the science fiction elements of the story are great. Konstance grows up on a generational ship, and we see her evolve an understanding of her and her family’s predicament. At the point at which she fully understands what is happening, everything changes. What follows is as taut and absorbing as any great work of the genre. 

A central theme of the novel is that of the Outsider. Nearly all of the novel’s protagonists are ostracised for some reason, whether it be for their gender or sexuality, because they are autistic, or have a physical disfigurement. The chapters that deal with the 20th and 21st centuries are all the more powerful for the passive abuse suffered by Zeno and Seymour. It seems unconscionable to modern sensibilities, yet, not only are their stories set not that long ago, tales like theirs are still occurring across the globe. Since the dawn of time life has been cruel to those on the outside. 

The consequence of being an outsider/alone is a search for belonging; what lengths we, as humans, will go to, not to be alone. We may seek to find companionship in books, a mystery to be solved, or in Seymour’s case, the darker parts of the internet. Cloud Cuckoo Land makes you think deeply about the connections you have made, the important bonds, but also, perhaps, the missed opportunities. It also asks us to reflect on times when we, perhaps, could have been more inclusive. It’s easy to shun an outsider. Not through cruelty but just for ease. Cloud Cuckoo Land asks us to think about the importance of not doing so. 

The choice of Cloud Cuckoo Land as title, of course, is not a coincidence – a state of overly optimistic fantasy. Who wouldn’t want to live or visit such a place? The central character from the story within the story, and each of the players in Doerr’s tale imagine a better place to live. Do they find it? That’s what the book is about. 

But it is more than that. It is about the relentlessness of humanity. The need to worry at a problem until it is solved. The willingness to hang on to life and hope, even when there is no suggestion it is worth doing so. Perhaps this then is the ultimate cloud cuckoo land and humanity’s superpower?

I loved Anthony Doerr’s writing in Cloud Cuckoo Land; it’s effortless to read but rich in language and meaning. Never pretentious, and utterly absorbing. It’s often the case that novels that I am desperate to read, disappoint. The perils of great expectations. Not so here. Cloud Cuckoo Land is every bit as good as I hoped it would be. Doerr is not a prolific writer, which perhaps is not surprising if they all have similar depth to this book. As I mentioned in our recent “Reading Resolutions” post, I shall look forward to checking out his backlist during 2023. 

If you’d like to pick up a copy of Cloud Cuckoo Land you can do so here, in the US, and here, in the UK. 

If you enjoyed this post, check out my other book reviews, here.



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