Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Cuckoo Song

After a mostly glorious and golden beginning to October, today was the first day when I really felt the in-betweenness of the seasons.  The wind, brisk and biting, definitely had the chill of winter.  I have been reading lots of ghost stories lately -- not really my favourite genre, but I like them when the "ghost" is more of a subtle, symbolic thing.

Halloween and Guy Fawkes Day and Remembrance Day have a tendency to slide together in England, as they all take place within two weeks and just at that time of the year when Daylight Savings conspires with the natural dying of the day and plunges us all into darkness.  If you really want to go with that mood, I don't think you can do much better than Frances Hardinge's Cuckoo Song.

There is a ghost in the house at The Beeches, Luther Square, Ellchester.  The father of the house may be Mr. Piers Crescent, civil engineer and designer of the railway bridges and station which will save Ellchester, but he hasn't been able to save Sebastian -- his oldest child, and only son, who died in the final months of the Great War.  Although Mr. Crescent has done his best to stop time, and wrap his daughters Triss and Pen in cotton-wool, he has made something of a bad bargain (literally) with a sinister Architect.  The entire family has been arrested in a prolonged state of grieving, and the inability of the parents to let go of their dead son has lead, directly, to the events which take place in this novel.

The War had ended, but it was not gone.  Somehow it was still everywhere.  Sebastian was the same. He had ended but he was not gone.

Like all the best children's books, this book operates on two levels -- thus making it appropriate for ALL ages. On the more surface level, this book is about a changeling (a "cuckoo") who is substituted for a real girl. Only gradually does "Triss" realise that she is actually a not-Triss -- and just a "monster" or made-up thing with an expiration date.    Unlike the real Triss, not-Triss (who later becomes Trista) is "allowed" to be something other than the "sweet, quiet, well-behaved girl" that her parents expect and want.  She has agency; she does things and makes things happen.  She eats dolls instead of playing with them.   Somewhat like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, not-Triss ventures into an alternate world -- the world of the Besiders -- and uses her wits to bargain for something which will change the outcome of not just her brief existence, but lots of other realities, too.

But there is a more complex level to this book; truly,  I think that all of the best fantasy novels have that ability to throw some light on what we like to call the "real" world.  That aspect of the book deals with the aftermath of World War I and how it impacts not just one grieving family but an entire society. The novel manages to take in the changing role of women -- and there is fascinating commentary here about the "containment" of the feminine -- but also how the war changed the "certainties" (religious faith and class structure) of the country.

One of the subversive female characters is Violet Parish, the former fiancée of Sebastian.  She has bobbed hair, rackety friends, a variety of short-term jobs and she drives a motorcycle; she drinks and smokes and is generally "fast".  She also takes in Pen and Triss when no one else will.

Once she had been 'Violet'.  After Sebastian's departure she had been 'poor Violet'.  And then somehow, in the years since his death, her name had blackened and speckled in Triss's family home, like a fruit left to rot, until it was thrown out and no longer allowed in the house.
A specific pleasure of this book is the quality of the writing; Hardinge has a wonderfully expressive way with words.  I cannot think of another writer who uses figurative language with such fresh precision.  I felt, often, the urge to copy sentences and paragraphs down -- to capture the words for myself -- just because they pleased me so much.   It wasn't a book that I would have sought out if left to follow my usual tastes, but it was a suspenseful, thoughtful and pleasurable reading experience.

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@Barrie Summy


  1. I love the writing in the excerpt...comparing a name to rotted fruit. Love it! And I like the Triss vs not-Triss/Trista and an alternate world. Fun that both you and Ellen Booraem reviewed books, MG books, with ghosts. The Cuckoo Song has a particularly eerie cover. Thanks for reviewing!

  2. Sold! From those sensuous excerpts, your review and another one I read on Goodreads. Although horror isn't usually my genre, I'll give this author a try. It does seem a good match for Halloween. I have always enjoyed how you match your reading to your setting. It's warm and the leaves are at peak color in Maine, but I can feel the season shifting here too.

  3. This sounds terrific. Thanks for the rec.

  4. The excerpts were smashing! This one sounds creepy and lyrical and poignant. Thanks for an excellent review!