When you read as many books as I do, sometimes it can feel like you’ve read everything before. It takes a rare book to stun me and shake me by the shoulders and say ‘look! I am full of wonders you’ve never ever seen, nor even dreamt of, in all your life.’
Frances Hardinge’s newest masterpiece, Cuckoo Song, is one of those books.
Frances Hardinge’s work is consistently excellent. She is in a league of her own when it comes to language; her sentences are full and fragrant, like rivers bubbling over with words sleek and plump as otters. Simply reading her work is an experience in itself, leaving aside the fact that she can create characters who feel more real than you do and plots which make you actually want to live inside the book you’re reading – even when (mostly when) what’s happening is terrifying. I’ve been in mourning for this book ever since I finished it. I forced myself to linger over it because I knew I didn’t want it to end, even though the end, when it came, was unbearably beautiful.
Stylistically, Cuckoo Song is similar to Verdigris Deep, another of Hardinge’s books set in the contemporary (or near-contemporary) world. Dealing with ancient magic which disrupts the lives of ordinary children, Verdigris Deep is every bit as luscious and beautiful as Hardinge’s other books, set in alternate realities (check out my review of A Face Like Glass for more on how excellent her world-building skills are), but its familiar setting takes away nothing from its power. Cuckoo Song is similar in that it is also set in a recognisable world, the Britain of the 1920s, which is reeling in the wake of the Great War and attempting to deal with the giant psychological wound at the heart of society by covering it over and carrying on as though nothing was amiss. This idea – that of reality being ripped to pieces and there being no other way to deal with it than by ignoring it – is one of the central concerns of the story, as is the idea of what makes a family; is it the people who form it, or the bonds which bind them? Is it the roles they play and the house in which they live, or is it the love they have for one another? Is it whether disruption to their unit – in the form of a lost member or an unexpectedly gained one – brings them closer together or drives them further apart?
Triss Crescent is eleven, and her younger sister Pen is nine. They live with their parents in a beautiful home in Ellchester, where they reside in some luxury with a household staff and a genteel car. Mr Crescent is a civil engineer involved with the design and building of the bridges and railway stations and homes in the city, as more and more of the wild countryside is tamed, mapped, charted and brought under control. Unmentioned by name is the girls’ older brother Sebastian, who fell in battle in 1918, and whose room has remained untouched ever since. Mrs Crescent drinks restorative, medicinal ‘wine’ to keep her calm of an afternoon, and the girls do not always get on, to say the least. Mr Crescent buries himself in his work and the esteem in which he is held by the members of his community. They survive.
And then Triss has an accident one day, and wakes up different.
She has an insatiable appetite – and not just for food items. Her sister Pen seems to hate and fear her. Her parents try to keep her ‘safe’, locked away, resting. Her memories are scattered and fragmented, and everywhere she goes there are dried leaves and flecks of dirt, as though she has been dragging herself through the soil of the garden without realising or remembering it.
Gradually, she begins to put together what has happened to her. Bravely intercepting a frightening creature who is doing inexplicable things in the bedroom of her dead brother, she discovers who, or what, she has become – and she finds out where she needs to go to get the answers which can unlock not only her own fate, but that of everyone she loves. Her sister is in danger, but her brother is in an even more perilous situation, and only Triss has the means by which to restore her family, no matter what it takes.
It’s impossible to synopsise this book without giving away too much about it, but the title is a huge clue as to what has befallen Triss. The story draws on folklore and ancient belief, using traditional wisdom and superstition like iron thread through the fabric of the text. Every single character Hardinge draws, particularly Pen (the small sister whose angry and heartbroken decision at the beginning of the book draws Triss into a mess her father had already started while trying to navigate the fog of his own grief) is a flesh-and-blood, psychologically complex individual. Every decision made, every deed done, every reaction, every piece of dialogue, every moment of the action, is as real and true as if it had actually happened. Cuckoo Song is one of the most perfectly formed and beautifully realised pieces of fiction I’ve ever read, in any genre. I wouldn’t change so much as a syllable, and it is not even a word too long or short.
Cuckoo Song is plangent and moving; it is poignant and meaningful. It has plenty to say about the nature of memory, about monstrosity, about family and nation and loyalty. It deals with the passing away of an old system and set of values and its rapid, messy and painful replacement with another. It is about finding what is real and true amid a sea of things which look real and true, but which are impostors. It is about what happens when you find what is authentic in an unexpected place, the last place you’d have thought to look for it. It’s about grief and loss and love, and the final terrible necessity of letting go.
It’s perfect. I can’t say more than that. If you haven’t read it yet, you really should.