Paperback, 416 pages
Published May 8th 2014 by Pan MacMillan
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…
I have been meaning to read a book by Frances Hardinge for ages. In fact, I recently purchased another book of hers, A Face Like Glass, with the intention of it being my first novel by her. But then I saw this one and requested to review it and luckily, was approved. Over at The Book Wars, this month’s theme is Crossover Books/Authors/Audience and while I would have to read many more of Hardgine’s other works to make a sound judgement on her status as a crossover author, I can honestly say that Cuckoo Song is a true crossover novel as it contains elements that will appeal to both its target audience – I would say mid-teens – and adults.
When we meet Triss for the very first time, there is no indication that anything is out of the ordinary. The sister seems particularly evil but sisters in the fictional world usually are. Then, as Triss gradually develops an awareness of herself as something and someone who may look like Triss physically but is very different internally, the narrative blooms. The book deals with themes of evil versus good and the gray area in between; it discusses the dynamics in a family and takes a much franker look at parents and their many foibles than is usually common in a children’s novel. There is something almost cynical in the way not-Triss comes to sad realizations about her parents as flawed people. But perhaps prevalent theme in this novel is the question of identity and humanity as Triss finds out things about herself that she didn’t really want to know. Her quest to cohere an identity for herself that is truly her own and not a pale reflection of anyone else is the heart of this novel.
Throughout this novel, one particular thing is reiterated once and again: adults will let you down. I found one of the scenes in the book, a turning point, to be fascinating in the way it portrayed adults as the true antagonists of the story. The novel reduces adults in very interesting ways and the only positive “adult” is a young adult who, it can be argued, still holds on to childhood in some fleeting way. The characters are all well hewn, particularly Triss and I loved how Hardinge uses names to denote her protagonist’s growth. The language is rich and evocative and while the pacing is slow compared to other books intended for younger audiences, I felt that the payoff is much more rewarding and substantial when compared to these same books.
While this book would be perfect for mid-teens and older readers, I think it could also be a wonderful book to read out to younger children and talk to them about the different elements in the story. I recommend this most heartily.