By now I should be prepared to be met with sheer brilliance when entering a Hardinge book, yet every time I am caught off guard by the beauty of her works.
A Face Like Glass used to be my favourite of hers, when compared to The Lie Tree and A Skinful of Shadows (which I have both loved, but not as much), but I think Cuckoo Song really is up there with it. Here I was reunited with the unique sophistication of her language, the wild imagination and the lush yet dark atmosphere that made me first fall in love with Hardinge’s universe. I loved the delicious creepiness of the novel, the intricacy of the emotions depicted, the entanglement between natural and supernatural faults….
“I know about you. I know what you are.”
In Cuckoo Song, Hardinge’s sixth novel, young Triss wakes up after an accident. Only she does not feel like herself anymore and she is scared, but does not know exactly why. Her parents are still cocooning her and her sister Pen is as annoying are usual. But there is something wrong, something terrible has happened, and she needs to find out what in order to stop her world from unraveling.
Follow hair-rising events involving in-head countdowns, ravenous hungers, moving, almost-talking dolls, letters from the dead, and very, very scary men..
I won’t give away much detail of the story. There are a lot of things going on and I was kept guessing until the end so I do not want to spoil the suspense for you. Let me just tell you that this novel is a dark and delicious delicacy.
A somber tale with strong creepy vibes but not only. Here the family dynamics are delicately dissected and perfectly blended with the supernatural elements of the novel.
“It was her job to be ill. I was her job to be protected.”
The Crescents are dysfunctional at best. Marked and blinded by grief, with parents far too much preoccupied by appearances. The whole country is tumbling forward, trying to survive through the aftermath of a war. The Crescents have lost a son, a brother and have never recovered from it. They suffer from the unsaid, dark secrets they never bury properly and that keep on jumping at their face untimely.
“Right at that moment, she had not wanted their minds to be at rest. She had not wanted to make things easy for them, or to add yet another lie to the stack of comfortable lies that seemed to be the only thing holding up the roof.”
I found the character of Pen, the youngest, particularly attaching and interesting. Not perfect by any mean, but with such a strong personality, such a will and vivacity! She is the light and laugh of the novel. Her untended pains and insecurities are what brings doom over their head but also what shatters the fragile castle of illusions they had build around themselves. And as it turns out, she is far from being the main and only culprit.
Triss’s ambivalence is also well explored. Mean Triss, suffocating Triss, loving Triss, frightened Triss, who has actually never truly been herself…
And Violet, so wild and free, who does the right thing no matter what it costs her.
And so many other interesting, disturbing characters I cannot talk about if I want to avoid giving everything away…
I loved how clearly children could see through the adults, their lies and faults. It offered a refreshing perspective and a way of expressing hard truths with candid poetry.
“‘It’s as if they’re wearing a lie, but it doesn’t fit them. ‘ Trista tried to straighten her thoughts. ‘They haven’t buttoned it the right way, so it’s baggy in some places and coming away in others'”
The family drama is spiced up by the evil creatures at work in town. But are they all evil, really? As mysteries are unveiled, we learn more about these others, their helpless stupidity, their pressing necessities. And you don’t really have to dig into the supernatural to find “others” that have been misunderstood, or who cause havoc in a world they don’t see properly, scarred as they are by improperly healed wounds. I loved how this tale of grief and fear was spun. In an imaginative way, Hardinge tells the danger of refusing change, of trying to stand still against the passing of time and the trials life brings upon us.
“We…used to live in the wilds, the deep forests, the bleak mountains, the unused places. Because we were unknown. Mysterious. Lost. Uncharted. And…. we need that. We can’t survive anywhere that is governed by certainty, where everything is known and mapped and written about and divided into columns. Certainty poisons us, slowly.”
Hardinge does not only possess an unabashed imagination. She also displays one of the most beautiful proses I have ever encountered. Her poetic, surprising metaphors and her superb descriptions make her a delight to read. I have seen people label it as “overwriting” and I could not disagree more. She brings into her novels, what I look for in poetry : the conjuring up of sensations, the stirring, resonating descriptions, through the most original images.
“Day crept in like a disgraced cat, with a thin, mewling wind and fine, slanting rain.”
Her stories are dark but heartwarming at the same time. They tell of the mighty of these world and the faults they hide beneath their polished masks. They celebrate the misfits that shine inside brightly but unnoticed, and whose bravery and quest for truth are what put things right in the end. Her words… an exuberant prose for a sorrowful world, glints of hope in a sea of despair.
“‘And that, I fear, is your problem,’ sighed the Architect. ‘For the world, my friend, is not clear. It is cloudy as a blood pudding. So if you see it crystal clear, there is something wrong with your eyes. or perhaps you do not use your eyes. Perhaps you see with your scissors instead’.”
Conclusion : Read it if you love beautiful prose and dark tales (this novel had some Coraline vibes in it) Read it if you love children’s book that treat grave subjects. Read it if you are curious to know what happens to Triss. In short : read it.
You can get your hands on your own copy here.
«She realized now that she had been expecting old-fashioned instruments – pipes, fifes, fiddles and tinny drums. Instead there came the cocksure, brassy warble of a saxophone, the blare of a cornet and the squeak and trill of a clarinet being made to work for its living. Not-Triss had heard jazz with neatly wiped shoes and jazz with gritty soles and a grin. And this too was jazz, but barefoot on the grass and blank-eyed with bliss, its musical strands irregular as wind gusts and unending as ivy vines.»
Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge
Released 8 May 2014 (22 march 2018 for this edition)
Published by Macmillan Children’s Books