Frances Hardinge has been on my radar for ages now. Ana, in particular, sings her praises long and loud, while the Book Smugglers have also given her highly favourable reviews. With endorsements like that, I knew I had to get my hands on her work, so when I received an opportunity to review CUCKOO SONG in advance of its North American release, I leaped to attention.
And y’all? I’m mighty glad I did.
CUCKOO SONG takes place about five years after the end of the Great War. Thirteen-year-old Tris wakes suddenly, unsure where she is or how she’s connected to the people at her bedside. Gradually, the details come back to her. These are her parents; that’s her younger sister, Pen; this is the vacation home her family has rented; and just beyond her purview is the lake where she met with a terrible accident. It’s all plausible and familiar, but it isn’t quite right, from Tris’s initial memory loss to the ravenous hunger that plagues her to the dolls that leap to life in her presence. As Tris discovers more about her condition and the accident that led to it, she comes to realize how little of what surrounds her is truly her; and of course, she has no choice but to do something about it.
Much as I have no choice but to seek out and devour all Frances Hardinge’s novels as soon as ever I can, because CUCKOO SONG is the sort of story that might come about if Diana Wynne Jones’s books got together with Elizabeth Knox’s books and produced a gorgeously creepy bookish baby, to which K.J. Parker’s novels acted as godparent.
By which I mean: the writing is fabulous, the characterization is subtle and evocative, the setting has style to spare, the story pulls no punches, and the target audience receives full credit for their ability to understand whatever the text throws at them.
Speaking of that target audience, I suspect I’ll see CUCKOO SONG referred to as YA more often than not. It does address some weighty themes, but to my mind it’s quite firmly children’s lit. Tris is thirteen; her sister, Pen, is eleven. They respond to the world around them in age-appropriate ways.
Don't take that to mean either one of them is dense. This is the sort of children’s lit that assumes protagonists and readers alike are capable individuals, albeit ones who might not yet understand the full breadth of the world simply because they have less practical experience moving through it. They learn as they go, and their worldview expands with every new problem they overcome. That makes them the perfect readerly fit both for children their age (or a bit younger) and older readers; a true all-ages novel, with the caveat that some of what happens herein is seriously creepy. The content is no more frightening than what one might find in Diana Wynne Jones, though, so readers who're up to that are up to this.
Let’s talk about the creepier elements, then, and about the themes Hardinge tackles.
CUCKOO SONG takes as its backbone the very notion of identity. Tris’s sense of her own identity shifts multiple times over the course of the narrative as she struggles to figure out who she is and how she fits into her family. Hardinge writes in tight third person, so the names by which Tris refers to everyone around her--and to herself--change in response to the way she views them. (I’ve chosen to call her Tris throughout this review because it’s the first name she embraces, but it isn’t necessarily the one she’s using by the final page). It’s a lovely, subtle, deeply immersive way of showing Tris’s evolving conception of herself.
The other characters receive similarly careful treatment on the identity front. Violet, Tris’s dead older brother’s former fiancee, continually reinvents herself as she recognizes she’s no longer the person everyone expects her to be. In Violet’s case, these reinventions involve a haircut, a motorcycle, different music, and something that begins as a magical compulsion to move from place to place but swiftly becomes a genuine preference for a nomadic life.
Violet, like Tris, is tempted to view herself as a monster because she doesn’t fit 1920s England’s idea of what a young lady should be. And as is the case with Tris, the text gives her the tools she needs to accept that sometimes it’s all right to be a monster in other peoples’ eyes as long as you be the person you truly are.
I love Violet so very, very much.
Both Tris's ongoing transformation and Violet's reinvention serve to demonstrate the fallibility of first impressions. Violet, seen through Tris’s parents’ eyes, bears little resemblance to the person we later come to know. Similarly, several people Tris likes very much on sight turn out to be unworthy of her affection. Others whom she initially dismisses or feels wary of turn out to be exactly the friends she needs. It’s beautifully done; a powerful, organic, and above all unpreachy argument for learning who people truly are before you make up your mind about them.
Moving along to the creepier elements, so much of everything that happens--Tris’s own situation; the changes her family undergoes; Violet’s evolution--is fueled by grief. Sebastian, Tris’s older brother and Violet’s fiance, was killed right at the end of the Great War, and his absence affects each character in a different way. Tris’s parents have renegotiated their relationships with both their younger children to accommodate his loss and to help make sense of their role as parents and as caregivers. Their treatment of Tris fuels her struggle to learn who she is and to understand why she’s in this situation in the first place. Their treatment of Pen, combined with the drastic steps they take to ameliorate their grief over Sebastian’s death, serves as the catalyst for the whole thing, with dire consequences for all three siblings.
These characters are stuck in a holding pattern when first we meet them, unable to fully process their grief. It’s a hell of a setup, and one that ensures no one will be entirely the same by the time the novel ends.
This scope for change is enormous, partly because Hardinge limns her characters so very, very well and partly because CUCKOO SONG is not realistic fiction. The characters needn’t be limited by the bounds of what can actually happen; not when there are faeries involved. Hardinge calls them Besiders, not faeries, but anyone who’s read even a smidgen of folklore from the British Isles will recognize them. CUCKOO SONG isn’t just concerned with how things change for its human characters; it’s also interested in how the modern world has impacted Besiders. They must make some fascinating new concessions in order to maintain themselves in a place where every road is mapped and every hidden dale explored. The manner in which they do so has deep consequences for Tris and her family, and it operates within its own particular, magical logic that can be as beautiful as it is frightening.
The faeries are the bit that’s liable to terrify younger readers (unless said younger readers are really tuned in to existentialism or the nature of the self, in which case they’ll likely find those bits the scariest. Ain't nothin' creepier than being alone in your own head).
Scary or no, CUCKOO SONG is a fabulous book. If you value good children’s lit, you must find and devour a copy.
For my part, I intend to work my way through Hardinge’s backlist as quickly as my TBR rules will allow. I expect it to be a brilliant ride.
While I always advocate your local library as the absolute best source for books, I recognize this may not be an option for everyone where every book is concerned. If you're in search of another way to read CUCKOO SONG, you can try:
- Kobo (e-book; for purchase; coupons work)
- The Book Depository (paperback; for purchase; free shipping worldwide)
- Amazon (paperback & Kindle; for purchase)
I receive a small percentage of the purchase price if you buy the book through one of the above links.