Tag Archives: Cuckoo Song

Book Review Saturday – ‘A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair’

I first heard about this book in an interview given by Frances Hardinge, an author whose work I absolutely love. Her new book, Cuckoo Song, was published in early May and, when she was asked about books which influenced her writing of that story, she mentioned A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair and how much she loved it as a child. It sparked my interest immediately.

Image: bookdepository.com

Image: bookdepository.com

First published in 1980, A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair is hard to get now – which is where having a good relationship with an obliging bookshop can go a long way. The edition I have is the one pictured (badly) above, a reprint issue from 2007. It’s a short, fast-paced and deceptively simple book which ends up making a huge statement about humanity and morality, all without getting too caught up in fancy language or over-explication. It’s a lesson, in fact, in how a good story doesn’t need too much embellishment.

As the book opens we are introduced to Brin Tuptal, a twelve-year-old genius with an IQ of 180, who is being ushered into a meeting with the Seniors of his city. Straight away, the reader is struck by the strange reversal of roles – Brin, the child, is shown deference; the elders are the ones who are ‘lesser’, and Brin speaks to them without consideration for their age – at least, at first. Brin is owed – and demands – respect, due to the fact that he is young, and therefore priceless. He lives in a future version of earth in which the human population has been decimated due to a long-ago nuclear disaster which resulted in a rapid loss of fertility and a massive drop in birthrate. Children are prized, and spoiled.

Brin is interrogated about his world and its norms – a very quick (if rather graceless) way of alerting the reader to the strangenesses of this future Earth. One of the questions he is asked concerns Reborns – what are they? Who are they? What use are they? – and we realise that the Reborns are clones, cooked up from leftover genetic matter. But they are not clones of people who are living, or even those recently deceased – for what would be the point in cloning, and bringing back to life, a person who was sterile, as the vast majority of people now are? These Reborns are people from the distant past whose genetic material (i.e. their remains) have been used to ‘reanimate’ them. The Seniors tell Brin that he will be included in an experiment to see if the Reborns are the answer to repopulating the planet, without telling him exactly what the experiment involves.

Brin is then ushered into a room which looks utterly different to anything he’s ever seen before. It has something called a ‘range’, and an icebox, and a fireplace, and a wireless, and battered old furniture, and it is small, and low-ceilinged, and dark… Brin is told then that the Reborns he is about to meet lived during 1940, and this room is designed to mimic the environment they would have been used to. Two children – Brian (the name is significant) and Mavis – then appear to him, along with an older lady whose relationship to them isn’t really explained. She is called Mrs Mossop, a hard-working woman who never takes a moment’s rest. The children begin to play with Brin, introducing him to things like toast and Marmite, and ludo, and Monopoly, and talking incessantly about Hitler and the war. He tells them that he is to live with them until his uncle Rick arrives from the Bahamas to collect him – but there is no uncle Rick, of course. He meets with no resistance, because the Reborns have been programmed to accept him, and not to question where they are.

But if they leave the room that the Seniors and their scientists have recreated for them, something dreadful will happen…

An alternate, long out of print cover for the book

An alternate, long out of print cover for the book. Image sourced: amazon.co.uk

Brin goes back and forth between the experiment and his own world, gradually realising that he likes Brian, Mavis and Mrs Mossop more and more. He begins to see that they are individuals, people worthy of respect and dignity and not mere lab-rats to be experimented upon. He knows that the Seniors have plans to destroy them, beginning with Mrs Mossop, and he knows he has to do something – and then, out of a moment of desperation, something like a miracle occurs. Something the Seniors could not have anticipated…

A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair is one of the most unique books I’ve read. As I said at the start, it’s not a sophisticated book, certainly not by today’s standards, but it’s definitely one that’s hard to put down. The language is simple, the descriptions basic, the dialogue expository and not terribly nuanced, but it’s the characters which bring this book to life. Mavis, Brian, Mrs Mossop and Brin, in particular, along with Tello (one of the Seniors) jump off the page and immediately demand to be loved and taken to heart. The slow unfolding of Brin’s realisation – that past ages were not peopled with mindless savages, and that the cold cruelty of his own age is comparable with anything that could have been done in the the past – is touching, and, as Frances Hardinge said in the interview I linked to at the top of this post, the twist at the end really made me think.

I’m not sure this is a book which would appeal to kids of today, and I think that’s sad. There’s a lot to be gained from reading it, particularly in relation to ideas of individuality and the value of the human spirit. I was struck, too, by how much of the ‘futuristic’ society has already come to pass in one way or another, particularly the ‘state’ having access to all your personal data, and every citizen having to wear an ID which contains everything about them and which must be surrendered to any authority figure on demand… In a way, it mimics the ‘papers’ that everyone had to carry in wartime Britain, but in another it’s a scary reminder of how centralised power can rob the individual of their personhood, and how much of our humanity we lose when we allow machines to run too much of this world in which we have to live.

Or perhaps that’s my innate techno-skeptic coming out again.

Anyway, if you can get your hands on a copy of this book, I’d recommend giving it a go. Bear with it in the opening chapter or two, and you’ll be rewarded with a thoughtful and philosophical little tale.



Book Review Saturday – ‘Cuckoo Song’

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.

Image: panmacmillan.com

Image: panmacmillan.com

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.

The astonishing Frances Hardinge. Image: thebooksmugglers.com

The astonishing Frances Hardinge.
Image: thebooksmugglers.com

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.


Content Warning

I am currently reading a book so brilliant that it’s actually a painful effort to put it down and get on with the rest of the stuff I have to do, like sleeping and eating and writing. It’s a book written for older children/young teenagers (its heroine is eleven – sort of); it involves magic and baddies and scary things happening in dark rooms and the terrifying power of scissors. It features a creature who cries cobwebs.

It’s fantastic.

Of course, it won’t have escaped anyone’s notice that, no matter how hard I try to be young in spirit and wrinkle-free of face, I am far more aged than the average reader of a book like this. In recent weeks there was a small furore about adults reading books written for children or teenagers and how we should all be ashamed of our juvenile tastes (I’m sure you can all guess what I thought of that). However, what’s on my mind this morning is something similar: are the themes in children’s books becoming more suited to adult readers?

Image: stevewhibley.blogspot.com

Image: stevewhibley.blogspot.com

As well as creatures made of twigs and strange messengers from Other places and magical upside-down worlds, the book I’m currently reading takes the Great War as a backdrop for part of its story: bereaved parents of fallen soldiers, left-behind fiancées whose beloved boys never came home, young men broken and hollow-eyed as a result of what they experienced in the trenches, present in person but absent forever in spirit, are all over it. The story is suffused with the sensibilities of a passing age, a turning from innocence to experience, a shattering of the traditions that had once bound society together and the beginnings of a new and uncharted way of life, one in which women expected to work and the paterfamilias in all its senses was starting to become less relevant. In one way, of course, nothing could be more important to a children’s story; those feelings of change and transformation and turning define a person’s life when they’re on the cusp of becoming an adult. In another, though, I can’t help thinking that while the general feeling created by all this tragic historical detail will add to a child’s reading experience, that in truth it’s designed to appeal to older readers, ones who will understand the symbolism in a deeper way.

I’ve blogged before on the absurd notion that certain topics are ‘unsuitable’ for children (including dark themes, death, good and evil, frightening things, ghosts and loss and challenges to identity, among plenty of others), and these same topics (albeit in different concentrations, perhaps) turn up regularly in adult books too. It’s probably natural, then, that there’ll be ‘bleeding’ between them; children need to read what they want to read, and these fictional explorations of change and discovery, courageous resistance in the face of evil and self-sacrifice in order to save a loved one are as important for young readers as they are for older ones. It’s also true that an adult reader will bring a different mental focus to a book than a child will, and themes will be read and understood differently depending on the age and experience of the reader; the same story might mean one thing to a child reader and something entirely different, something more, to an adult.

Perhaps it has always been this way. Charlotte’s Web, for instance,features sacrifice and the threat of slaughter and the overwhelming power of friendship. Children might get a message of love and unity from it, where adults might bring their own sense of nostalgia and their greater awareness of the passing of time to the story. The poignancy of Charlotte’s struggle might mean more to them, for they know, from the beginning, that Charlotte cannot live forever. Perhaps the mastery in the book I’m currently reading lies in the fact that it works on a multitude of levels: it’s a story about the encroachment of magic into a family and the struggles of two young girls to outsmart it, but it’s also a story of the increasing industrialisation of society, particularly after the slaughter of the Great War. It’s a tale of the machinery which ate huge chunks out of the countryside and the people who lived in it – and the traditional creatures and stories and legends who were also driven out. It’s a story about parental love for their daughters, but the hints of a darker reality are there too – an entitled class with more money than compassion, a woman who loves her own children but who has contempt for those of others. It’s a story of two girls who miss their big brother, a soldier who was lost in France in 1918, but it’s also the story of his lost life, the wife he never married and the children he never had.

Perhaps the books I love – the rich, textured, multi-layered, story-within-a-story books – haven’t started to incorporate ‘adult’ themes so much as I, the reader, have started to notice them. Perhaps, in reality, there are no ‘adult’ themes: good children’s books are as full of life and death and vitality as their adult counterparts. They are not lesser, not by any means, and no adult should be ashamed of reading anything which brings them pleasure, certainly not the masterpieces of children’s literature which contain more truth and beauty than shelf-loads full of the narcissistic nonsense which sometimes passes for ‘serious literature’. I love the idea that a child reader might love a book for reasons they can’t put their finger on; they might know there’s more to a story than they can grasp at a particular point in their reading life, but they resolve to come back to it later and read it again, gaining more and more from each re-read. I did this regularly as a kid, and (weird as I am) I’m sure I’m not alone. Those are the books we love at every stage of life, the ones which become part of our DNA. Adults coming to them can get the immeasurable joy of reading the story on all its levels at once, which is an experience like no other; children will treasure them all their lives.

Image: childrens-books-and-reading.com

Image: childrens-books-and-reading.com

Perhaps we should worry more about our intense need to police what people are reading than our desire to categorise books as ‘for one sector of society only.’ Of course there are books which are not suitable for children, and from which they should be kept, but I hate the thought that so many adults would be reluctant to open their minds to a wonderful story for children just because they feel it’s inappropriate for them to want to read it.

Read outside the box a little, is my advice. You might be surprised by what you find.