It is literary fiction.
It is historical fiction.
It is contemporary fiction.
It is science fiction.
It is a masterpiece.
Anthony Doerr, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for his great World War II novel All the Light We Cannot See, has returned with an even better, more inventive creation. This genre-bending book brilliantly combines three diverse storylines over almost six centuries. Doerr artfully ties them all together with the characters’ shared love for an ancient Greek story called Cloud Cuckoo Land.
The book opens in the future with 14-year-old Konstance, who has lived her entire life with her parents on a spaceship called the Argos. The mission of 86 people set off for a new planet because Earth was dying from climate extremes. Her father spends time with her sharing a favorite story about Aethon, a silly shepherd who wants to become a bird so he can fly to the utopian Cloud Cuckoo Land.
Then the story travels back to present-day Idaho, where we meet Zeno, an 86-year-old man who has spent much of his life trying to translate Cloud Cuckoo Land into English. He and a small band of children are going to present a play based on the story at the town’s small library. Their plans are upended by a troubled teenager named Seymour, who is angry that the woods behind his home have been bulldozed to make room for townhomes.
The novel goes back in time to 1453, when the great walled city of Constantinople is about to be overtaken by the army of a young Ottoman sultan. Anna, a 13-year-old orphan who lives in the Christian fortress, is supposed to learn embroidery, but all she really wants to do is read. She discovers an ancient book, and slowly learns how to decipher the Greek story of Cloud Cuckoo Land. Her fate soon will change when she meets another teenager, Omeir, who was forced to join the sultan’s army.
The novel sounds complicated, but the author pulls it off effortlessly. The memorable characters deal with loss and loneliness, yet Doerr always gives them hope and the comfort of books. This is a big volume of more than 600 pages, but I easily flew back and forth from one timeline to the next. Cloud Cuckoo Land is a homage to stories and libraries, and Doerr dedicates it “for the librarians then, now, and in the years to come.’’ It is a book for the ages.