This was another of my favorites on the Cybils shortlist. I thought it was by far the most ‘literary’ of all the books on our shortlist, but this was counterbalanced by, what I felt, was its limited middle grade appeal. I LOVED Ms. Hardinge’s Mosca Mye books (Fly by Night and Fly Trap) but have never had much luck getting kids to read them; Cuckoo Song is a very different kettle of fish, but I still feel it has more appeal to adults than its intended audience.
Nonetheless, it is an extraordinarily imaginative, creepily atmospheric, and beautifully written fantasy novel. Set in surburban England, five years after the end of the First World War, 13 year-old Triss wakes up feeling something isn’t quite right. She’s been sickly for a long time, but this is different: “Mommy [an irritating Americanism – really publisher?], help me, please help me, everything’s strange and nothing’s right, and my mind feels as if it’s made up of pieces and some of them are missing….”
So far, so odd but nothing out of the ordinary. And then Triss’s doll speaks to her, and she develops an unstoppably voracious hunger. Triss and her younger sister Pen team up to get to the bottom of what’s going on, and themes of alienation, difference, and identity bubble up, meshing perfectly with the characters and the setting.
The plot is so inventive and well-laid out with twists and about-faces that just feel right when they happen, though I couldn’t have conceived of them happening. As the threads merge towards a resolution that feels satisfying and grows organically, without contrivance, from the characters and plot, much is revealed and the reader’s sympathies will move with it.
Hardinge writes like an absolute dream. Her language, similes and metaphors are entirely appropriate for the period and the characters, but are all startlingly original, and add rich illumination to the text. Here are just a few of my favorites (I think they’re snippet-y enough enough not to qualify as spoilers, but apologies if they are):
- Triss’s parents being angry on her behalf “felt like being coddled inside a horse-chestnut shell, protected by its inward downy softness, while all the spikes pointed outwards.” (p. 9)
- Running a temperature was “the easy lie, the much-stamped passport to forgiveness.” (p. 72)
- “Her parents had herded Triss’s woolly memories into the neat pens of their stories.” (p. 81)
- “This was jazz that had wiped its feet and put on its best manners to meet somebody’s mother.” (p. 178)
- (This other jazz) “had not wiped its feet; it had crunched right into the room with gravel on its shoes.” (p. 182)
- “Mr. Grace hesitated only briefly, as if choosing a card at whist.” (p. 362)
There is much (much!) more to Cuckoo Song than I’ve written about here, so all I can do is suggest you read it for yourself and then we can talk about it some more.