the boy with the cuckoo-clock heart

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The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart by Mathias Malzieu

translated from French by Sarah Ardizzone

Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

Hardcover, 172 pages.

Ages: Adults

I checked this out from the library based on its premise. I had not seen the cover everyone rightfully raves about (see below).

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FIRSTLY: don’t touch the hands of your cuckoo-clock heart. SECONDLY: master your anger. THIRDLY: never, ever fall in love. For if you do, the hour hand will poke through your skin, your bones will shatter, and your heart will break once more.

Edinburgh, 1874. Born with a frozen heart, Jack is near death when his mother abandons him to the care of Dr. Madeleine—witch doctor, midwife, protector of orphans—who saves Jack by placing a cuckoo clock in his chest. And it is in her orphanage that Jack grows up among tear-filled flasks, eggs containing memories, and a man with a musical spine.

As Jack gets older, Dr. Madeleine warns him that his heart is too fragile for strong emotions: he must never, ever fall in love. And, of course, this is exactly what he does: on his tenth birthday and with head-over-heels abandon. The object of his ardor is Miss Acacia—a bespectacled young street performer with a soul-stirring voice. But now Jack’s life is doubly at risk—his heart is in danger and so is his safety after he injures the school bully in a fight for the affections of the beautiful singer.

Now begins a journey of escape and pursuit, from Edinburgh to Paris to Miss Acacia’s home in Andalusia. Mathias Malzieu’s The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is a fantastical, wildly inventive tale of love and heartbreak—by turns poignant and funny—in which Jack finally learns the great joys, and ultimately the greater costs, of owning a fully formed heart. ~publisher’s comments.

Mathias Malzieu’s The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is a lovely dark tale about hearts that won’t let go.

I can say I enjoyed the read. I can’t say I know yet what to do with it.

Edinburgh and its steep streets are being transformed. Fountains metamorphose, one by one, into bouquets of ice. The old river, usually so serious, is disguised as an icing sugar lake that stretches all the way to the sea.  The din of the surf rings out like the sound of windows smashing. Miraculously, the hoarfrost stitches sequins on to cats’ bodyies. The trees stretch their arms, like fat fairies in white nightshirts yawning at the moon, as they watch the carriages sliding over the cobblestone ice rink. It is so cold that birds freeze in midflight before crashing to the ground. The noise as they drop out of the sky is uncannily soft for a corpse.

This is the coldest day on earth. And I’m getting ready to be born. (3-4)

Malzieu has a way with images and that alone is worth the read. The fantastical woven amidst the grit of realism is something I love in a story; Malzieu firmly sets the reader into wonderful possibility and painful familiarity. A boy with a cuckoo-clock grafted into his chest, echoing/prompting his heartbeat and young/first love.

The fairy tale aspect to the novel is convenient. It allows for the strange to find new expression in timeless emotions/conditions. The cuckoo-clock works and the way in which Malzieu carries it all off is astounding.

the narrative…The narrative is a bit tricky. The narrator is Jack, the boy with cuckoo-clock heart, and yet the tense is not in the past; which is jarring when an infant remembers and uses impossible similes. And at one point he shifts to address Madeleine directly.  By the end you wonder to whom Jack is speaking and why the story is being told (even as it isn’t exactly being told). Much of the story is dominated by Jack’s obsession with Miss Acacia, but this central focus provides a parallel for other characters’ obsessions. It also serves as a distraction. The story is as much if not more about Jack and Madeleine, than Jack and anyone else.

Another aspect of the narrative is in the first person’s singular perspective. Flaws in Miss Acacia that Jack observes is quickly blanketed with layers of adoration, re-positioning her back into saintly light. He is a boy deeply in love and it becomes as if his heart has been grafted onto hers; a strange and awkward appendage; and image that makes all too much sense. The singular perspective also allows for the reader to be jarred as Jack is when a revelation finds us near the end of the novel.

characters…I loved the idea of a mad midwife prosthetic engineer. The 19th century Dr. Madeleine alone should excite Steampunk readers. Then Malzieu would add George Méliès as a character; which is an interesting choice: a personage who fits well into the story, a figure well-suited to befriend and advise Jack.  He makes for a brilliant male counterpart to Madeleine, and father-type to Jack. A man that dreams as grandly as Jack, and who has loved as grandly.

As love stories go, Miss Acacia, however lovely to laugh scornfully at upon occasion, was a figure I can only imagine understanding. I think Jack’s obsession may speak more clearly to someone other. But I did linger over moments of Jack’s emoting that was too prettily put to ignore. The way he speaks about her at times is painfully beautiful, which makes any rejection harder to bear. The trajectory of their story is not for happy endings, you hope, and yet not. And it may well have a happy ending; as Méliès ending makes room for hope.

The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart creates and bears plenty of bumps and bruises along the way. It has adult sensibilities which remind the reader that even as the narrator may be ten as he is experiencing something, his consciousness really must be that much older; a consciousness that is intent on connecting with an adult audience. The perceptions become easier to believe as he ages. The story has a fascinating quality to it, primarily held in the images Malzieu has wrought; this forgives the jostling shifts and turns in the overall telling. The crafting of The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is a bit rough and raw, a bit crooked, but the real heart of it is good and worth the while.

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Check out these wonderful write-ups:

Irena’s review at This Miss Loves to Read

and Darren’s review at Bart’s Bookshelf.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Carl v. says:

    I saw this on the library shelf quite awhile back when the library first obtained it and immediately snatched it up. That cover was too gorgeous not to and the description sounded wonderful. It doesn’t seem like that long since I had read Ekaterina Sedia’s beautiful book, The Alchemy of Stone, and I was hoping this would in some ways replicate that experience.

    And that might have been part of the problem. The “tricky” narrative that you discussed was something I could not get past. I tried, and then I tried some more, and then I realized that there are a whole bunch of wonderful stories out there where the author can actually write and decided I no longer had time for this. It is sort of the same experience I had with China Mieville’s first YA book, Un Lun Dun. I kept getting thrown out of both of these stories because moments of beautiful and exciting prose would be followed by paragraphs that seemed as if they were written by someone who had no grasp on basic grammar and no editor to take a firm hand with them.

    I suspect there is something special here as there probably is in Un Lun Dun, but these things tend to frustrate me more because I like to see gifted storytelling combined with at least some degree of normal grammatical structure. I’m sure many of my favorite authors are not grammatical whiz-kids, but at least they don’t make me stop and say, “What?!?!”

    I also couldn’t get past the adult stuff which seemed to against the grain of the protagonist’s age. I felt like the author was just trying to get too much into this one story instead of choosing an audience and making the book work within those parameters.

    Wow, that is a lot to write for a book I barely penetrated! LOL.

    1. L says:

      This is one I would like to see someone take a strong editorial hand with and republish, as I agree that the fractured nature of the narrative is off-putting; especially in light of the fact that there are other authors who can craft this story better.

  2. “It is so cold that birds freeze in midflight before crashing to the ground. The noise as they drop out of the sky is uncannily soft for a corpse.” may just well be one of the best lines of description I’ve ever read. I love bizarre phrasing like this.

    And the premise itself sounds enjoyable, too. I may very well have to check this out, just to see if there is more lines like the ones above.

    1. L says:

      The images are fantastic and if you go into the for the pleasure of that one thing, I think the read worthwhile, & I think some other lovely aspects will present themselves.

      however, I would feel remiss in not mentioning the concerns in others’ responses, like Carl’s, which should be viewed as a caution. Especially for a writer like you who has a great sense of pacing, rhythm, and revelation.

      If you do pick it up, would love to know your thoughts on it.

  3. Marie says:

    I’m going to take a look for this. I like the sound of the child’s voice through the perspective of the adult. And I love the cuckoo clock heart concept- very goth in its way. 🙂

thoughts? would love to hear them...

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