Author: Frances Hardinge
Genre: Fantasy, Horror, Middle Grade
Publisher: Pan MacMillan
Publication Date: May 8 2014
Paperback: 416 Pages
When Triss wakes up after an accident, she knows that something is very wrong. She is insatiably hungry; her sister seems scared of her and her parents whisper behind closed doors. She looks through her diary to try to remember, but the pages have been ripped out.
Soon Triss discovers that what happened to her is more strange and terrible than she could ever have imagined, and that she is quite literally not herself. In a quest find the truth she must travel into the terrifying Underbelly of the city to meet a twisted architect who has dark designs on her family – before it’s too late…
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did we get this book: ARC from the publisher + bought
Format (e- or p-): eARC + paperback
Why did we read this book: We are huge fans of Frances Hardinge. We’ve read – and loved – every single one of her books.
“All was perhaps. Nothing was certain.
And that, that was wonderful.”
I am opening this review with Cuckoo Song’s closing words because there is a wonderfulness about them, an intrinsic quality to those words that at once show the excellence of the book at a sentence level and also perfectly encapsulate the thematic core of the novel: its heart and soul, if you will.
It behooves me to tell you that this book nearly shattered me: it will be difficult to convey the amount of angst that stems from this story without spoiling what happens but by gods, I will try – for spoiling certain elements of the plot would be a terrible thing to do. Nevertheless, I feel that it is possible to fully review and analyse Cuckoo Song without being too detailed.
Suffice it to say that the story follows Triss, an 11-year-old girl who wakes up one day from an accident to find out that she has changed in a fundamental way. She no longer remembers certain things. Pages from her diary are missing. Her dolls talk to her and she feels insatiable hunger all the time. Her little sister is terrified of her. And when she cries, instead of water, cobwebs fall from her eyes.
Her parents insist she is ill and no wonder: with all of this happening, she must be. She has to be. It would, after all, be the easiest answer to her problems. But easier is not the same as better as Triss will slowly find out. In her journey to understand what happened to her she will eventually go down a path to find out who she really is.
Cuckoo Song is, just like any book written by Frances Hardinge, a book that works on many levels. In the most elemental way, it is a supremely well-written novel. I’ve said this many times before but it bears repeating: Frances Hardinge’s writing awes me for its creativity, for its sentence structure, for the way she is able to relay so many things in not so many words. Above all for simply making the most of her premise: for taking what’s a story about a girl and making it a story about a family, about one town, about time and about a specific point in time, about women in general and one girl in particular, about differences, about outsiders and about identity, about autonomy and agency. All of this is beautifully woven too, there are no jarring moments to take us out of what is simply put, a very engaging, beautiful, hopeful story.
Then, you have the question of tone. This is probably the darkest, most Horror-like of the author’s books. The opening chapters are nightmarish and almost disorienting as Triss is lost in events she doesn’t quite understand. There are unexpected turns and terrible, awful secrets are revealed. One recurring theme is that of “monstrosity” and what makes one a monster. It will not surprise those familiar with the author to find out that this question is not easily answered. That things are not black and white. The most striking thing about Cuckoo Song is the compassionate and sympathetic outlook this story has for good people who do terrible things sometimes (and it fits with the underlying question of “certainty” vs “uncertainty” too). It’s almost too beautiful to bear, to be honest.
I somehow managed to – as promised – avoid being too specific about the story. But there are a couple of things I must mention before finishing. First of all: the relationships. Especially the lovely relationships between Triss and just about anyone in the novel and the way they can be simple or difficult, fraught or gentle. I was moved by the stories involving the three main characters: Triss, her little sister Pen and their friend Violet. There is one moment when Pen and Violet simply…hug….Triss and that is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. And the more the story progresses, the more attached one becomes to those characters. There were moments I had to stop reading because I felt so much for Triss and hoped so much for everything to be ok for everybody.
Another important aspect of the story for me is how it ties in with a specific historical period. It’s set in England just after the end of the First World War and it shows the difficulties of surviving such a harrowing experience as a nation, as a people and as individuals. There are threads that brilliantly obverse issues of class and gender. The latter is a very strong aspect of the novel in the portrayal of Violet, one of the main characters. Deemed an “outsider” because of how she behaves and for wanting to continue to fully experience the freedom she had when she worked for the War Effort, Violet is an awesome character.
There are sad moments that deal with those who fought and survived and those who fought and died. Those who went to War and those who were left behind to mourn. Time is of essence and the incorporation of this topic in the novel is, to no one’s surprise at this point: also brilliant. I will leave it at that and with one last quote:
The world is breaking, and changing, and dancing. Always on the move. That’s how it is. That’s how it has to be.
I will begin my part of this review by saying: Cuckoo Song is now my favorite Frances Hardinge novel.
This is not praise I give lightly, even though I’ve only read three of her books. Each book, each word written is a treasure, and Cuckoo Song is the most beautiful of them all.
I will endeavor to follow Ana’s example and NOT spoil anything in this book, because some discoveries are best made when you don’t know. And Triss’s journey is certainly much better when you aren’t exactly sure what has happened to her, or where the story is going – it’s the question of certainty, versus uncertainty that is at the heart of Cuckoo Song:
“A Knife if made with a hundred tasks in mind.” He continued, threading his bone needle. “Stab. Slice. Fray. Carve. But Scissors are really intended for one job alone – snipping things in two. Diving by force. Everything on one side or the other, and nothing in between. Certainty.”
In Triss’s young life, everything has been snipped in two, divided, made certain. When her older brother, Sebastian, dies during the Great War, her family is snipped and severed. Triss and her younger sister Pen are given new roles to play to fill the hole in their family. Things are broken, but so long as everyone pretends and plays by these certainties and rules, all can continue as it has always continued.
Well, except that it can’t.
Cuckoo Song is a coming of age book, a dark fairy tale, and a family drama – it is a story about a decidedly uncertain time (following the war and its devastating after-effects), and a story about the power (and horror) of both love and loss. It is a messy story, in other words. Not in the sense that the writing or the plotting or characters are deficient – absolutely the opposite – but in that nothing is ever clear cut.
This is true of motivations and “villains” in the book: there are terrible acts committed by Triss, by Pen, by their parents, by a vengeful tailor, and a twisted Architect. What can be viewed as terrible betrayals and heartless acts of cruelty are actually acts of love, or have roots in some greater sympathetic past.
This is also true of the mystery Triss and her illness in this book (which I won’t delve into for fear of spoilers).
Most importantly, though, this is true of the relationships in Cuckoo Song. Indeed, what I love the most about this remarkable, heartbreaking book are the relationships, particularly those between Triss and her younger sister Pen, between Triss and her father, between both Triss and Penn with the shadowy Shrike and Architect, and between Triss and her late brother’s fiancee, Violet. These are all cords in tangles and messy snares; all are connections that cannot be snipped or neatly severed. Take the relationship between Pen and Triss, for example: Pen resents her older sister for making her parents miserable and for stealing their affection and attention, but she cannot simply pretend that Triss is simply evil or hateful. The same can be said for Triss when she realizes what Pen has done. As fraught as the sisters’ relationship is, over the course of the novel we see the love that underlies the anger and fear and mistrust. It’s a jagged and beautiful and painful bond, but Hardinge writes it so perfectly – and the same can be said for any of these connections in the book.
Thematically, Cuckoo Song shines, too. The novel poses questions such as: What does it mean to be “real” or to be an individual? What makes someone a monster – the thoughts they entertain, or the acts they commit (or neither)? It also shows the younger generation paying the price for their elders’ mistakes – be that with the fallout in the post-war period, or children being targeted for their parents’ ill-advised promises. There’s the question of personal choice and acting in someone else’s best interest (a tendency that adults tend to have over their younglings) – sometimes adults are right, but sometimes they are very, very wrong.
I wish I could say more, about the specifically horrific parts of this book, about the nature of Triss’s affliction and her journey in Cuckoo Song… but I shall not. All I will say is that there are heartbreaking reckonings in this book, and they are all written without shortcuts or contrivances.
The last thing I will say is this: Francis Hardinge’s imagery in Cuckoo Song, moreso than any other book I’ve read from her, is flawless. Imagine teeth of thorns, and tears made of cobwebs, and porcelain dolls who scream and glower and accuse. Imagine a girl so insatiably hungry that she eats rotted apples rife with worms, and necklaces, and ribbons and pages of books. Imagine a roaring fire meant to consume a small child, and eternal winter that follows someone wherever she goes.
All this, and more, awaits in Cuckoo Song.
In other words: I loved every moment of the book, and it is most certainly one of my top 10 reads of 2014.
Additional Thoughts: Frances Haringe was over earlier this week to talk about her inspirations and influences for Cuckoo Song – check out here post HERE (but note that the post includes some mild spoilers).
Ana: 9 – Damn near perfect
Thea: 9 – Damn near perfection
Reading Next: Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDoughall
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