Cuckoo Song: Review

Cuckoo Song: Review

Cuckoo Song: ReviewCuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge
Published by Macmillan on May 8, 2014
Genres: fantasy, mystery, paranormal
Pages: 409
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased
Amazon • Goodreads

four-half-stars

The first things to shift were the doll’s eyes, the beautiful grey-green glass eyes. Slowly they swivelled, until their gaze was resting on Triss’s face. Then the tiny mouth moved, opened to speak.

“What are you doing here?” It was uttered in tones of outrage and surprise, and in a voice as cold and musical as the clinking of cups. ‘Who do you think you are? This is my family.”

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…

Cuckoo Song is one of those books that I really struggled to find the words for. You know those books that have such an intense amount of complexity, beauty, and feeling? The kind of book that leaves you asking yourself, “How can I do this book justice?” Yes, this is one of those.

I was expecting this story to be a creepy, horror-tinged, fantastical mystery. And it is those things. But I was not expecting it to also be a story about the devastating effects of war on both societal and personal levels and of how a family torn apart by grief can come back together again. It’s also somehow lovely. So, so lovely in the midst of such horror..

Imagine you woke up one morning with all memories fractured, able only to grasp at mere pieces of who you are. You went missing from your home last night, found dripping at the edge of a lake. Yet you don’t remember a thing. And stranger things happen still. Eleven year old Triss has a rattling, insatiable hunger that won’t go away. A china doll comes to life before her very eyes. Instead of hair, twigs come away on her brush. A mysterious creature is leaving letters written by Triss’ dead brother locked away in his bedroom. There is a deep sense of dread and unease that settles in from page one and the intense need to relieve that creeping feeling compels the story.

But the dread is not just for Triss’ unfortunate circumstances. The grimness of an England trying to bring itself back from the devastation of the Great War, and right into the burgeoning escapism of the Jazz Age, is ever present. Triss is driven by answers to her own situation, but she is also struggling to reconcile the distance between herself and her parents who are still grieving a son lost in the war. She doesn’t know that the two are more intertwined than she could ever guess.

The less you know about the mystery at the heart of Triss’ condition the better.  But there is so much else going on in this book. There are themes of classism, women’s rights, the stigma of mental illness and the repercussions of vengeance. There is also a heady yet sobering dive right into the heart of the post-WWI youth scene, where jazz clubs and poverty abound. Violet, the woman who was her brother’s fiance, is the vehicle through which we explore many of the above mentioned themes. Triss’ relationship with her is wrought of heartache and pain, yet with a fierce and hard won loyalty. As for the mystery, though, do know that each piece is unlocked with another aching tug at your heart.

And this might come as a shock (because it’s me we’re talking about here) but there’s nothing like even the hint of one of those cutesy MG romances happening here. All of the relationships are focused on family and friendship. And the best of these is Triss’ relationship with her clever, thorny yet loveable sister, Pen. Pen alone seems to know that Triss is…not herself, and the story begins with the two as the staunchest of enemies. Watching them slowly come together as they unite their disparate goals is one of true pleasures of the book. This is a story about a love between sisters that is better than Frozen.

Gorgeously written, atmospheric, dark, and twisted; yet infused with shards of light and hope. A paranormal mystery that is ultimately about the reclamation of grief and the burning unconditional love of a family. For anyone who hesitates to read MG, I implore you to give this one a chance. It made my heart hurt in all the best ways. It is middle grade at its finest and one of my very favorite books of the past couple years.

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