It is England during the reign of King George V. The Machine Age is at its peak, and human society is in flux, becoming increasingly urbanized, secular. The Great War has come to a close, but the traumatic devastation it has wrought echoes on in family’s lives. Nations struggle to recover and political/economic turmoil presages greater conflicts and changes to come. What the future holds is not only a concern for humanity, but also for The Besiders, a race that has lived alongside us in the margins, driven further into the isolated shadows as human civilization spreads.
Eleven-year-old Triss Crescent awakens in a bed surrounded by her parents and a doctor, her memory fragmented and incomplete. She gradually recalls that the family is together on vacation, and that she has had an accident, coming close to drowning in the Grimmer, a local millpond. But she has difficulty remembering the details of how she fell in, or how she managed to get out. Triss’ younger sister Pen was there to witness the accident, but Pen sulks in the corner of the room, far from Triss, and won’t say more than angrily proclaim that Triss is lying, pretending; that Triss is not who she claims to be.
Unsure of how to react to the hostility of her younger sister, Triss is additionally confused that their parents seem concerned about more than Triss’ health. The Crescents have always considered their elder daughter sickly and frail, and treated her with an overbearing protectiveness that only increased after the death of their son Sebastian on the Western Front. But now something about this incident at the Grimmer has frightened them, and overhearing their whispers in the corridor Triss learns that the accident may involve a sinister business associate of her architect father.
Isolated by the secrets of her parents and the inexplicable hatred of her sister Pen, Triss has only herself to figure out what is going on, but the effects of the near drowning experience seem to be growing beyond her comprehension or control. Triss finds herself with an insatiable appetite, even turning to swallowing inedible objects in the absence of readily available food. She awakens after fitful nights with crumply, dried leaves in her hair. More sinister, dolls begin to show signs of life in her presence, and scissors appear intent on attacking her. Triss begins to wonder whether Pen is telling the truth, if she isn’t the self — the Triss — that she believes she is.
Frances Hardinge should be widely recognized on the same level as Neil Gaiman. They share not just nationality/culture of birth, but similar strengths for dark fantasy tones and rich, literary prose filled with symbolism, myth, and metaphor. Hardinge’s style is a literary equivalent of classic Tim Burton films, a Gilliam, del Toro or a Jeunet/Caro picture. Her books feature a certain measure of weirdness, of intense imagination. Yet they also have elements of classic familiarity, like Gothic underpinnings, timeless themes, and young protagonists that grab reader empathy. Though her books have been primarily for middle-grade or YA readers, they are works, much as Gaiman’s Coraline, with a complexity and beauty that would be enjoyed by any age.
I first discovered Hardinge’s writing while randomly browsing new books in the library years ago. I nearly passed over that copy of Well Witched (titled Verdigris Deep outside the US) due to its title and cover, which seemed a bit too childish. The blurbs kept my attention though and I ended up hugely impressed with the novel and everything else I’ve read by her since. Cuckoo Song, which thankfully hasn’t changed its title for this debut US publication, was no exception.
The plot description above for Cuckoo Song barely scratches the surface of the novel’s set-up. To go into any detail of where the story goes from there would betray too many spoilers that readers should just go discover themselves. Like much middle-grade literature, events in the book set things up so that the young protagonist is isolated, unsure of which adults to trust, uncertain where they can be safe. Secrets have been kept from them because of their young age, but this has just created problems: problems the adults seem incapable of really understanding or solving, but which the young protagonist is able to discover answers about and fix themselves.
Initially alone, Triss ends up finding support from at least one adult, the wildly progressive and all-around-awesome Violet, fiancée of Sebastian until his death in the trenches, and eventually Triss reconciles into an uneasy, but growing partnership with Pen. The complex relationship between the two sisters is one of the greatest strengths of the book and highlights one of the big themes of the novel, the nature of family and loss. Pen and Triss are both brilliantly realized, real even with all the fantastic elements at play in their characters and relationship.
Hardinge’s books in general feature strong female characters, whether at the forefront of the story or not. In Cuckoo Song there is obviously Triss and Pen, but there is also Violet: a feminist, a lover of jazz and motorcycles. She is a woman who dearly loved Triss and Pen’s brother Sebastian, yet his death (and other events) have caused her to become unnaturally bound in that relationship rather than joined simply in the marriage they intended. She has become defined as a painful memory by the Crescents, a woman who can never become an actual part of the family, yet who is in many ways at their mercy. As Triss yearns for freedom from the coddling of her parents, as Pen yearns for individuality and a recognized voice, so too does Violet yearn for actual independence from the past. As with all things in her novels Hardinge weaves strands of historic realism, magic, and figurative language into Violet’s complex condition.
The males in the novel are depicted as more helpless, or severely misguided. Interestingly they are given a particular trait more traditionally (unfairly) considered ‘feminine’: they are ruled and defined by their passions. The inability of Mr. Crescent to deal with his son’s death leads to the entire predicament of the novel. Another character similarly is unable to rationally cope with vindictive emotions and preconceived views in the face of new possibilities or redemption. On the other hand, the only woman to display these kinds of failing traits is Mrs. Crescent, who is also the only woman in the novel set in that traditional role of motherhood — of a supplier of protection. Ironically, Violet proves to be better at this job than the traditional mother.
A novel filled with atmospheric creepiness and exquisite literary depth, Cuckoo Song is another success from the extremely talented Hardinge. Her new book The Lie Tree is also just recently out, so there are plenty of options out there for both new and familiar readers alike.