There is no book in 2021 like Cuckoo Earth Cloud (Scribner) by Anthony Doerr. The 623-page novel spans centuries, and for transport fans a spaceship is heading to a distant planet, emissaries on horseback, oxen firing a cannon to invade Constantinople, army tanks, cars, buses, trucks and planes. It examines the effects of climate change on the environment and the consequences of the development of paved roads on wildlife.
As with all of Doerr’s books, the characters are beautifully described, the story is compelling, and the carefully crafted tapestry of themes brings the characters and periods together into a glowing whole, tempting the reader to start over as soon as the book is finished. .
Cuckoo Earth Cloud is Doerr’s first book since All the light that we can’t see, a Pulitzer Prize winner located in Saint-Malo, France during World War II. Published in 2014, All the light sold 15 million copies and Netflix is making a series of films. Doerr also wrote two volumes of short stories, The collector of seashells (2002) and Memory wall (2010); a thesis, Four seasons in Rome (2007); and another novel, About Grace (2004).
Cuckoo Earth Cloud is “intended as a hymn to books,” according to Doerr, and is dedicated to librarians. It includes a small public library in the fictional town of Lakeport, Idaho (based on McCall, Idaho), a collection of books in Umbria, Italy, and a library with nearly every book ever written in the Argo spacecraft metaverse. It focuses on the fragility of books and the fragility of the planet.
The book, with 400 short chapters and over 100 characters, follows five stories at once, and (fair warning) the reader needs to focus to keep them all straight. But the effort is worth it.
Story within History is an old Greek tale invented 1,800 years ago, called Cuckoo Earth Cloud, by Antonius Diogenes, loosely based on the donkey in Golden ass, by Apuleius. The term “Cloud Cuckoo Land” was coined by the Greek playwright Aristophanes 2,400 years ago in his play, The birds, and came to mean a fanciful utopia.
The shepherd Aethon in Doerr’s Greek story is looking for a better life and wants to turn into a bird. But, by mistake, he turns into a donkey and spends most of the story trying to get back to what he was. In Cuckoo Earth Cloud, the ancient Greek text managed to survive through a series of coincidences, linking the past to the future.
The book begins with Konstance, traveling in a spaceship named Argos with his parents in the 22sd century on a distant planet, BetaOph2, to escape pollution, droughts and forest fires on planet Earth. In the 15e readers of the century meet Anna, an orphan from Constantinople, and Omeir, a boy with a cleft palate in the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria. In the 20e century, living in Lakeport, are Seymour and Zeno (named after Zenodotus, first librarian of Alexandria), as well as wonderful librarians.
The five main characters all find Greek history when they need it most, and all have a relationship with a librarian or curator. Konstance discovers the virtual library in the spaceship; Anna illegally learns to read Greek and finds Italians in Umbria collecting old books; Omeir learns the value of Anna’s books: and the Lakeport librarians befriend Zeno and Seymour.
In Cuckoo Earth Cloud, Doerr has selected places where new technology disrupts the status quo. The Ottomans destroy the long standing walls of Constantinople with cannons. In Idaho, the internet allows activists to radicalize teens. Those of us interested in transportation are always on the lookout for these disruptions.
Why read novels? Doerr, in an interview last month with Pen America, gives a reason,
“Books, for me, have always been a way out of my own boring, white, bald life. . . The library was like this place full of portals to other worlds, and other lives, and other times. So in many ways this book Cuckoo Earth Cloud is sort of a tribute to that, whether books allow us to escape the walls – the proverbial walls or the metaphorical walls – of our own lives.
Much like with Aethon, all of the characters in the book seek a better life, but find happiness in unexpected places. Konstance’s father volunteered to join the space crew and leave Earth, but regrets his decision. Anna wants a life with books; Seymour wants a quiet place. The adventures of Omeir and Zeno make them appreciate the small pleasures of domestic life. Ultimately, the message of the book is that we can find happiness at home rather than in Cloud Cuckoo Land – a good message to take in 2022.