Summer Reading: Cuckoo Song

Cuckoo Song
By Frances Hardinge
“Oh no, of course I couldn’t possibly understand you.” Violet’s shadowed face seemed to be wearing a grim and serious smile. “I know, you woke up one day and found out that you couldn’t be the person you remembered being, the little girl everybody expected you to be. You just weren’t her any more, and there was nothing you could do about it. So your family decided you were a monster and turned on you.” Violet sighed, staring out into the darkness.

”Believe me, I do understand that. And let me tell you—from one monster to another—that just because somebody tells you you’re a monster, it doesn’t mean you are.”

Something is wrong. Triss can’t remember anything about the accident, and no one will talk to her about it. Her sister can’t stand to be in the room with her. Her parents whisper behind closed doors. Someone has ripped up her diaries. And even her dolls seem to hate her.

If you’re a Frances Hardinge fan, you already know that nothing is ever what it appears to be, and this dark, tender fairy tale of a novel is no exception. As Triss discovers the truth about her accident, her father’s mysterious business partner, her brother’s death, and her own existence, she’s plunged into mysterious world where nothing is what is seems. Hardinge envisions a vivid post-World War I England, still scarred by loss and fear, and her descriptions are lush and dream-like. Triss and her younger sister Pen form a wary alliance, and their relationship is one of the highlights of the books—a complicated, definition-defying, sisterly connection that feels heartbreakingly authentic. 

There’s a faint note of horror underlying the book from its beginning, which sometimes rises to the surface with a shrill crescendo—as when the children of a hidden village try to literally pull Triss apart as she walks through the village streets—but the horror always twists through the absolutely ordinary details of everyday life. It’s unsettling—but it’s supposed to be. Triss’s existential crisis may be supernaturally spurred, but it’s really not so far removed from the questions of reality and identity that any 13-year-old girl might face. Like any good fairy tale author, Hardinge lets her story speak for itself—there’s no heavy-handing moralizing or sense-making of the events that unfold. Much like Triss, the reader is left to find her own meaning.

I don’t think Hardinge is right for every reader. Though her work is for middle grades readers—and there’s nothing in it that wouldn’t be appropriate for that age—The Cuckoo’s Song is dark and complicated. Some parts are genuinely terrifying. But it’s a very, very good book and definitely worth reading.

(If you're playing summer reading bingo, I read this one because I hate the U.S. cover.)