I expected that Mathias Malzieu’s novel of magical realism, The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart, would be both quirky and charming, and full of whimsy. It is described as ‘a dark and tender fairytale spiced with devilish humour.’ I have had the novel on my to-read list for years, and was very excited when my slim hardback copy arrived. However, my overwhelming feeling about the novel is one of disappointment.
The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart has been translated from its original French by Sarah Ardizzone, and opens in Edinburgh in 1874. A baby named Jack is born to a very young mother, and is found to have a frozen heart. He is given an operation, in which the unconventional Dr Madeleine ‘surgically implants a cuckoo clock into his chest.’ The novel’s first sentences set the initial tone, although they do give a feeling of fairytale and wonder, which is not carried through the entire book: ‘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.’
The novel is narrated by Jack, and follows his infatuation with an Andalusian girl made of fire: ‘Almost without realising it, I’m falling in love. Except I do realise it too. Inside my clock, it’s the hottest day on earth.’ Dr Madeleine, who becomes his guardian after his mother abandons him, worries that love will be a dangerous experience, and that his heart will be quite unable to take the strain. She tells him: ‘Your cuckoo-clock heart will explode. I was the one who grafted that clock on to you, and I have a perfect understanding of its limits. It might survive the intensity of pleasure, and beyond. But it is not robust enough to endure the torment of love.’ Jack’s narrative voice rarely feels authentic when he is supposed to be a child, and there is little change within it as he reaches adulthood. There is next to no character development within the novel, which is a real shame.
The initial descriptions which Malzieu gives of Edinburgh are highly sensuous: ‘Edinburgh and its steep streets are being transformed. Fountains metamorphose, one by one, into bouquets of ice. The old river, normally so serious, is disguised as an icing sugar lake that stretches all the way to the sea.’ Other descriptions too verge upon the breathtaking: ‘… the hoarfrost stitches sequins on to cats’ bodies. The trees stretch their arms, like fat fairies in white nightshirts, yawning at the moon…’. Whilst the descriptions of both place and people are by turns lively and inventive, it did not seem to me as though the rest of Malzieu’s writing quite stood up. It is when the narrative moves from Scotland to Spain that such descriptions start to suffer; they become relatively few and far between, and feel a little repetitive in what they pinpoint and express.
On initially viewing the dustjacket’s design and reading the blurb, I would have thought that The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart would be a suitable book for a child to read. It seems not, however; there are several marked references to sex, and some quite coarse language at times too. One of the fundamental flaws of the novel for me was that it did not appear to know exactly what it wanted to be, and there was too much going on at some points, and not enough at others. It felt inconsistent, and did not hold my interest once its initial few chapters had passed. I had qualms with the modern feel of the dialogue, which did not fit with the chosen time period at all; the historical detail was also rather patchy, and there are a few clumsy mistakes to be found for the eagle-eyed reader.
There are certainly some interesting ideas at play here, and I particularly admired the inclusion of Georges Melies, a real-life figure whose playful short films I love. It did not quite come together in my opinion, however, and felt markedly peculiar. It was difficult to immerse myself within the story, and it certainly loses momentum at points due to its inconsistent pacing. The fairytale elements which are emphasised within the book’s blurb are relatively non-existent. The translation was fluid, but regardless, I ended up disliking more about the novel than I liked. The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is what I imagine literary steampunk would be like; of marked interest to the right reader, but not really of appeal to this one.