Book of the Month: Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr (2021)

Critical Evaluation

“Cloud Cuckoo Land,” a follow-up to Doerr’s best-selling novel “All the Light We Cannot See,” is, among other things, a paean to the nameless people who have played a role in the transmission of ancient texts and preserved the tales they tell. But it’s also about the consolations of stories and the balm they have provided for millenniums. It’s a wildly inventive novel that teems with life, straddles an enormous range of experience and learning, and embodies the storytelling gifts that it celebrates. It also pulls off a resolution that feels both surprising and inevitable, and that compels you back to the opening of the book with a head-shake of admiration at the Swiss-watchery of its construction.”

Theroux, Marcel, ‘From Anthony Doerr, an Ode to Storytelling That Shows How It’s Done,’ The New York Times Book Review, September 24, 2021.

First Excerpt

“On the Fourth Hill of the city we call Constantinople, but which the inhabitants at the time simply called the City, across the street from the convent of Saint Theophano the Empress, in the once-great embroidery house of Nicholas Kalaphates, lives an orphan named Anna. She does not speak until she’s three. Then it’s all questions all the time.

“Why do we breathe, Maria?”

“Why don’t horses have fingers?”

“If I eat a raven’s egg will my hair turn black?”

“Does the moon fit inside the sun, Maria, or is it the other way around?”

The nuns at Saint Theophano call her Monkey because she’s always climbing their fruit trees, and the Fourth Hill boys call her Mosquito because she won’t leave them alone, and the Head Embroideress, Widow Theodora, says she ought to be called Hopeless because she’s the only child she has ever known who can learn a stitch one hour and completely forget it the next.

Anna and her older sister, Maria, sleep in a one-window cell barely large enough for a horsehair pallet. Between them they own four copper coins, three ivory buttons, a patched wool blanket, and an icon of Saint Koralia that may or may not have belonged to their mother. Anna has never tasted sweet cream, never eaten an orange, and never set foot outside the city walls. Before she turns fourteen, every person she knows will be either enslaved or dead.”

Second Excerpt

“Dawn. Rain falls on the city. Twenty embroideresses climb the stairs to the workroom and find their benches and Widow Theodora moves from window to window opening shutters. She says, “Blessed One, protect us from idleness,” and the needleworkers say, “For we have committed sins without number,” and Widow Theodora unlocks the thread cabinet and weighs the gold and silver wire and the little boxes of seed pearls and records the weights on a wax tablet and as soon as the room is bright enough to tell a black thread from a white one, they begin.

The oldest, at seventy, is Thekla. The youngest, at seven, is Anna. She perches beside her sister and watches Maria unroll a half-completed priest’s stole across the table. Down the borders, in neat roundels, vines twist around larks, peacocks, and doves. “Now that we’ve outlined John the Baptizer,” Maria says, “we’ll add his features.” She threads a needle with matching strands of dyed cotton, fastens an embroidery frame to the center of the stole, and executes a hail of stitches. “We turn the needle and bring the point up through the center of the last stitch, splitting the fibers like so, see?”

Anna does not see. Who wants a life like this, bent all day over needle and thread, sewing saints and stars and griffins and grapevines into the vestments of hierarchs? Eudokia sings a hymn about the three holy children and Agata sings one about the trials of Job, and Widow Theodora steps through the workroom like a heron stalking minnows. Anna tries to follow Maria’s needle—backstitch, chain stitch—but directly in front of their table a little brown stonechat alights on the sill, shakes water off its back, sings wheet-chak-chak-chak, and in an eye-blink Anna has daydreamed herself into the bird. She flutters off the sill, dodges raindrops, and rises south over the neighborhood, over the ruins of the basilica of Saint Polyeuktus. Gulls wheel around the dome of the Hagia Sophia like prayers gyring around the head of God, and wind rakes the broad strait of the Bosporus into whitecaps, and a merchant’s galley rounds the promontory, its sails full of wind, but Anna flies higher still, until the city is a fretwork of rooftops and gardens far below, until she’s in the clouds, until—

‘Anna,’ hisses Maria. ‘Which floss here?’

From across the workroom, Widow Theodora’s attention flickers to them.

‘Crimson? Wrapped around wire?’

‘No.’ Maria sighs. ‘Not crimson. And no wire.’ “