... 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…. 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. [loc. 3769]
Triss wakes up after an accident that she can’t recall clearly. Her sister Pen is acting suspiciously, as though she knows more than Triss does about that accident: as though Triss has the power to hurt her. Their parents, respected architect Piers Crescent and his lovely wife Celeste, seem to have secrets of their own. One of those secrets might explain why, or at least how, letters from their son Sebastian are delivered almost daily to Sebastian’s desk drawer – even though he died in Flanders five years ago, in a bitter winter.
And Triss is ravenous, can’t eat enough. She sleepwalks, too. And someone’s ripped out half the pages in her diary. The doctor is unsympathetic and her new friend Mr Grace has an agenda of his own. And Triss’s parents wholly disapprove of Violet, Sebastian’s former fiancée, “all her angry, grimy inner workings visible to the eye”. But perhaps Violet, whose windows are icy only on the inside, can help Triss uncover a secret or two ...
This is a novel that’s at once chilling (in several senses) and uplifting. Hardinge is especially good at describing Triss’s state of mind: a young girl who suddenly feels that her life is not her own, that she’s doing everything wrong, that she’s become (or has always been?) something terrible. Cuckoo Song conveys the claustrophobia of a loving family, the rigour with which that family’s rituals are maintained, and the price of freedom both within and outside the family home. It’s also a darkly subversive evolution of the Victorian fairytale, filtered through the aftermath of the First World War. Not everyone comes home: some refugees are stranger than others.
Hardinge’s turn of phrase continues to glitter: eyes are ‘cold and hard like those of a thrush’; a cry ‘sounded the way a scar looks’; the night is ‘curled around the world, dispassionate as a dragon’.
At times Cuckoo Song reminded me of Robert Holdstock’s Lavondyss, and not just because of the wintry elements.Maybe it’s Triss’s relationship with the brother she hardly remembers; maybe it’s the sense of shadows that aren’t cast by anything, things ‘half seen and half heard’. I think, though, that Hardinge’s novel is ultimately more hopeful: the ice can melt, the lost be saved.
“The War crushed faith. All kinds of faith. Before the War, everybody had their rung on the ladder, and they didn’t look much below or above it. But now? Low and high died side by side in Flanders Fields, and looked much the same face down in the mud. [loc. 2935]