In the 15th century in Constantinople, a young girl climbs the high walls of an abandoned monastery that is said to be haunted by spirits who carry their chamberlain through shattered halls on a throne made of bones.
In the 1940s, in Lakeport, Idaho, a boy follows his father to a new job, a new life, and ultimately a new war.
In 2020, a troubled teenager sits in his car outside the Lakeport Public Library, a gun in his pocket, a bomb in the backpack next to him.
In 2146, mission year 65 of the Argos – a generation ship heading to a new home on Beta Oph2 – a girl arranges slips of paper on the floor inside a sealed room. She’s been inside for about 300 days, her only company, an artificial intelligence called Sybil, which contains the sum of all of humanity’s knowledge.
These are the points of the loom on which Anthony Doerr weaves his latest book, Cuckoo Earth Cloud – a tapestry that spans centuries, connecting the lives of these characters through words, stories, libraries and, more particularly, an invented manuscript (whose name the novel bears) written by the very real Greek author former Antonius Diogenes.
In Constantinople, Anna fails as a seamstress, but learns to read ancient Greek from a dying tutor to wealthy children in exchange for stolen wine and bread. She spends her nights flying, her days in a monastery with her sister. She meets a group of Italian scholars in search of ancient manuscripts, plundering the city before the coming war. Outside the walls is a boy, Omeir, with a cleft palate and a deep bond to his two huge oxen, Moonlight and Tree. He was drafted into the army of the sultan besieging the city but will find, months later, Anna among those who fled.
In the 1950s, Zeno Ninis, the boy from Lakeport, lost his father in WWII and went to fight in the Korean War himself. He is captured, survives, ends up translating Diogenes’ manuscript, and decades later, working in his hometown library, he helps a group of school children stage “Cloud Cuckoo Land” like a play. . It’s the night of the dress rehearsal that Seymour, the ecoterrorist, brings his bomb to the library, believing it to be deserted, only hoping to damage or destroy the model home and offices of a neighboring property development company.
Doerr does incredible things with his story, with this tale unevenly distributed among characters so disparate, voices so different. It creates bonds that endure through the centuries, passing from place to place and person to person with enviable grace, making seemingly impossible logical and temporal leaps as natural as breath. Between the covers, spanning hundreds of pages, it has it all – birth and death, love and war, heists, escapes, the peculiar (but not unique) perils of growing up in 1453, 1940, 2020 and 2146. He breaks the story down into a thousand pieces, then spends each page carefully putting everything in order.
Cuckoo Earth Cloud is a book lover of nature and libraries, which despises progress and yet embraces technology (read its descriptions of building a huge cannon outside the walls of Constantinople or the experience of virtual reality aboard a space arch a century from now are masterpieces of world building and wonder). For his eponymous center hook, Doerr invents what is a ridiculous genre of Big Rock Candy Mountain, a sort of ancient Greek thread about an obscure shepherd named Aethon who hears the story of an imaginary city in the sky where there is no has no pain, no hunger or suffering and believes it to be real; who is transformed into a donkey, fish and owl in his pursuit of this place – each echoing the lives of those characters whose stories intersect through the centuries, whose lives are shaped by Diogenes’ comic tale.
Doerr does not exaggerate the importance of history in history. On the contrary, it wants to remind us again and again how easy it is to lose pounds through the ages – the sheer number of stories, tales, songs, account books, speeches, poems and more. stories that have never crossed the meat grinder of history. Diogenes’ “Cloud Cuckoo Land” survived by luck, by chance, by sacrifice and dedication. There are no heroes or villains, no global plots, no secret societies bent on controlling this lost manuscript. There’s just a book thief, a boy and his ox, a messy kid who lost his best friend, a man putting on a children’s play, a girl talking to a supercomputer.
The book is a puzzle. The greatest joy comes from seeing the pieces fall into place. It is one of the most silent epics, whispering for 600 years in a voice no louder than that of a librarian. It’s a book about books, a story about stories. It’s a tragedy and a comedy and a myth and a fable and a warning and a comfort at the same time. It says, Life is hard. Everyone believes that the world ends all the time. But so far they’ve all been wrong.
He says if stories can survive maybe we can too.
Jason Sheehan knows his stuff about food, video games, books and Star blazers. He is a restaurant critic at Philadelphia cream magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales of the Radiation Age is his latest book.