“Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.”
John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
Thanks to the wonderfulness that is twitter, I saw someone recommend this book the other day and added it to my mental list of ‘books I need to check out next time I’m in a library or bookshop’. I made a beeline for a bookshop, read the first three pages, and bought it straight away.
The opening of Cuckoo Song grabs you with its very eerie atmosphere, where you feel like you should recognise it as something from your own memory bank, but it’s just ever so slightly different. This is something that is sustained through the whole book, giving a fantastic sense of unreal-ness and other.
We find ourselves with a girl named Triss, who has woken up and been told she’s ill but doesn’t remember anything that has happened to her. She is told by her parents that she might have fallen in the Grimmer – a delightfully sinister name for anything, and what I like to think is a nod to the fairy tale tradition. She struggles to remember who she is, who everyone else is, and only finds this out when other people tell her. Something has most definitely gone wrong. Triss’ panic and the sensation that she isn’t quite herself gets more and more intense, building steadily into the next phase of the story. This is, after all, a little girl – only eleven – who is ill and she doesn’t know why, and with big gaps in her memory she can’t account for.
The other character who grabs you right from the start is Pen. She is Triss’ little sister, who hates her with a vengeance, without any initially clear reason. The hook of finding out what on earth has happened to Triss is a strong one, but it is made even stronger with the added hook of why on earth does Pen loathe her so much? It was this combination, shown to the reader in the first few pages, that grabs you and pulls you in. There is a fantastic sense of unrealness and weirdness and other, but it blends this with a very realistic sibling difficulty – though hopefully with less loathing.
Pen and Triss’ relationship is one I think really guides the story as it powers forwards. These are two girls who clearly don’t get along, and yet their story lines keep crossing. They have to learn to tolerate each other and work together in certain ways, and it is this relationship that I enjoyed so much. Add in a certain lady on a motorbike and an earlier death in the family and this intricate web of characters is powering forwards through this slightly different and alien landscape. The sinister yet ever-present antagonist – the wonderfully named Architect – hovers in the background too; he is a villain who doesn’t need to be seen to scare you. Which, in my opinion, are usually (but not always!) the best kind of bad guy!
The thing I love about this story is that it’s one of those books that just keep getting longer the more you read. The only other book I’ve read that does this is The Book Thief by Markus Zusack, and that’s one of my favourite books. It feels like you’ve read a whole novel already and then discover you have another two hundred pages to read. It’s the most fabulous feeling. And it’s all done without the pace being slow, or dragging. It’s like pass the parcel and finding all the layers underneath and you keep unwrapping it, eager to find out the final parcel. And unlocking the heart of the story is a wonderful feeling.
The other thing I enjoyed about its pacing is that just over halfway, when the story moves up a gear, it ploughs straight into a full-on adventure story. It’s still eerie, still strange, still very atmospheric, but we’ve discovered enough about the strange other side of the story that it’s no longer completely out of bounds to us. This is a section I also enjoy – the first half of the book, by the nature of the plot and the contents, is very insular and active but not in an obvious way. Once this has passed, the action jumps up a notch – helped by the presence of a character who I personally like very much – but more than that, I cannot say! (to paraphrase Sir John Middleton).
The only thing I would change about this is that I wish more had been made of the Grimmer. It sounds dreadful and threatening and to my mind there is clearly a backstory to the Grimmer, why it came to be called that, and it would be something surrounded by plentiful superstition in a town that is undergoing change after the Great War. I think it would add yet another layer to the story and I do wish that had been included.
That said, I’d absolutely recommend this book to everyone. It was one of those books that suckered me completely into the world of the story and on more than a few occasions I shouted at family members to “leave me alone, I HAVE to finish this book!” It was one of those where, if I looked up from it, I was in a bit of daze, with a moment of confusion when I realised that I was still sat on the sofa and not in the world Hardinge has created.
And I can’t give much better of an endorsement than that.
CUCKOO’S SONG: 9/10
If you enjoyed this, you may like:
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
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