“…just because somebody tells you you’re a monster, it doesn’t mean you are.”
I’m so glad I discovered Frances Hardinge. After devouring The Lie Tree last year, I was excited to delve into her back catalogue and see what it had in store. I started my journey with The Lie Tree’s predecessor, Cuckoo Song (Pan Macmillan, 2014). The cover alone gives us a glimpse of the unsettling story that lies within and I couldn’t wait to get started.
Triss wakes up with no recollection of the night before and a crackling voice in her head repeating, “Seven days”. Surrounded by the faces of her family she barely recognises, she’s told she’s been in an accident having fallen into a nearby body of water called the ‘Grimmer’. She is labelled ill again, as she has been countless times before, and assured she will get better soon. Only this time, she knows something is very wrong.
Beyond her amnesia, Triss has an insatiable appetite that no amount of food seems to suppress. Her hair turns to leaves in her hands, while dolls watch her every move and speak to her. Even her tears have transformed into cobwebs. What’s more, her little sister Pen resents her and declares she’s an imposter, much to the dismissal of their parents. But, Triss soon discovers Pen knows more than it seems and she must travel to the darkest realms of the city to find herself again.
Cuckoo Song is as eerie as it is inventive. Hardinge has written a multi-layered story that works as a tale of mystery and horror, with sombre undertones of grief. Unpredictable and unnerving, I never quite knew where it was going or how it would end. The same can be said about the tale’s cast of characters. When I thought I had made my mind up about each, they subverted my expectations and changed my opinion completely.
The changeability of Hardinge’s characters is perfectly exemplified by our protagonist, who goes through several iterations – Theresa, Triss, Not-Triss, Trista and Cuckoo – as she learns more about who she is and where she belongs. Pen grows from an irritating brat to a vulnerable little girl, as she learns to love the sister she has. But, the most unexpected transformation comes in the form of Violet, the girlfriend of their late brother Sebastian, who died at War.
Shunned by Triss and Pen’s parents, we are led to believe Violet is erratic and uncaring, having pawned Sebastian’s possessions off for money. But, as she becomes entwined with the girls’ journey, we discover she is fiercely loyal and brave with an admirable, straight-talking attitude. Her desire to protect the girls makes her an unlikely hero against the story’s many villains.
Head of the so-called Underbelly, the appropriately-named Architect crafts the perfect revenge over a broken promise. The Underbelly is home to ‘Besiders’, creatures that belong neither here nor there, and have a fear of scissors. No one knows this better than the local tailor, Mr. Grace, who has his own grudge against the beings. Hardinge explains the aversion through the magical Shrike:
“But scissors are really intended for one job alone – snipping things in two. Dividing by force. Everything on one side or the other, and nothing in between. Certainty. We’re in-between folk, so scissors hate us.”
One of the most prevalent themes throughout Cuckoo Song is what makes a monster. Are the Besiders monsters simply because they do not belong in our world or are we the monsters for not accepting them? It is a metaphor that is more relevant now than it has ever been.
Hardinge also tackles what it feels like to believe you are the monster. She makes various references to Triss’ ill health, particularly mental health, as she fears she is the “wrong kind of ill”. Her parents mollycoddle her and prevent her from growing up, as they constantly blame her illness for holding her back. When Triss fears she has finally become a monster, Violet reassures her:
“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.”
Once again, Hardinge has proved she is a master at crafting stories aimed at children, which break the boundaries of age. She has found her footing in the realm of the fantastical and frightful, twisting the ordinary into extraordinary; the bland into bizarre; and has gained a loyal fan in me.