Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Book Review: Cuckoo Song (2014) by Frances Hardinge

Fairies are overlooked in most contemporary fantasy and YA literature. It's werewolves and vampires who rule the roost these days when it comes to folkloric creatures. Clearly, fairies need better representation; a high-profile PR firm, perhaps, or maybe a top agent at CAA. Once upon a time, as they say, fairies were a staple of fantasy stories stretching all the way back to Shakespeare. For quite a while now, however, fairies have been relegated to picture books and junior fiction that presents them as Barbie dolls with wings. Frances Hardinge's fairies are mad, bad and dangerous to know.

The setting is a fictional English town in the early 1920s. Triss Crescent, age thirteen, has just woken from a coma that resulted from a fall into a pond. She seems fine, but Triss knows that somehow she's not the same person she was. For one thing, she has an insatiable appetite that no amount of food can satisfy. And what about those cobweb tears? Pen, Triss' younger sister, angrily declares that Triss is not, in fact, Triss: she's an impostor. Their parents don't know what to make of the changes in Triss, and Pen's accusations are simply ignored. It's clear Pen has always ranked lower on the family totem pole than Triss. The family is also haunted by the loss of their adult son, Sebastian, who died five years previously in World War One. His former fiance, Violet, is also on the scene, and her independent, motorcycle-riding, ciggy-smoking, jazz-loving ways deeply offend Mr and Mrs Crescent. In short order we, and Triss, come to the realization that she's a changeling, swapped by the fairies (called Besiders here) in order to punish Mr Crescent. The novel is essentially a mystery-thriller, as Triss tries to uncover the secret of her origin, retrieve the real Triss from the fairy kingdom, and find out what the Architect (the Oberon of the Besiders) is up to.

Hardinge's plot is lean, cleverly put together, and always exciting, but what sets her apart from almost everyone else in this field is the quality of her prose and her unbridled imagination. The average writer in the YA/fantasy world is obsessed with world-building, to the point where some novels read like computer software manuals. One gets the feeling that Hardinge writes in this field because it allows the greatest scope for her prose, especially her exquisitely-crafted metaphors and similes. Here's a sample:

Every time she closed her eyes, she could sense dreams waiting at the mouse hole of her mind's edge, ready to catch her up in their soft cat-mouth and carry her off somewhere she did not want to go.

Hardinge's world-building is right up there with her prose. She ticks all the fairy lore boxes, but in each case adds an extra ingredient or a twist on the conventions of the genre. One example: there's a fairy ride at midnight that both honours convention (humans think it sounds like a flight of geese) but takes the form of a tram filled with fairies that bounds over snowy rooftops in a sequence that brings to mind the work of animator Hayao Miyazaki. And then there's Violet, whose grief for the dead Sebastian takes magical shape in cold, ice and snow if she stays in one place for more than a few hours. It's an outstanding visual metaphor for sorrow and loss.

The fairy characters are true to their roots in folklore. They're feral, hostile to humans, kindly on occasion, unintentionally persecuted by the spread of civilization, and largely unknowable. But mostly they're dangerous, and Hardinge even gives us Mr Grace, a fairy hunter (fairybuster?) who specializes in ridding the world of changelings. Hardinge isn't the first writer to give us fairies cast in the role of sharp-fanged villains. Alice Thomas Ellis did something similar in A Fairytale (my review), and Chris Adrian wrote a modern and very, very dark version of A Midsummer Night's Dream (my review) set in San Francisco. Both are excellent and definitely not for the YA demographic. As I read Cuckoo Song I got the sneaking suspicion that it may have been inspired by a poem called The Changeling written by Charlotte Mew, a British poet who died in 1928. I may be wrong but the poem certainly captures some of the tone of the novel, and here it is:

Toll no bell for me, dear Father dear Mother,
Waste no sighs;
There are my sisters, there is my little brother
Who plays in the place called Paradise,
Your children all, your children for ever;
But I, so wild,
Your disgrace, with the queer brown face, was never,
Never, I know, but half your child!

In the garden at play, all day, last summer,
Far and away I heard
The sweet "tweet-tweet" of a strange new-comer,
The dearest, clearest call of a bird.
It lived down there in the deep green hollow,
My own old home, and the fairies say
The word of a bird is a thing to follow,
So I was away a night and a day.

One evening, too, by the nursery fire,
We snuggled close and sat roudn so still,
When suddenly as the wind blew higher,
Something scratched on the window-sill,
A pinched brown face peered in--I shivered;
No one listened or seemed to see;
The arms of it waved and the wings of it quivered,
Whoo--I knew it had come for me!
Some are as bad as bad can be!
All night long they danced in the rain,
Round and round in a dripping chain,
Threw their caps at the window-pane,
Tried to make me scream and shout
And fling the bedclothes all about:
I meant to stay in bed that night,
And if only you had left a light
They would never have got me out!

Sometimes I wouldn't speak, you see,
Or answer when you spoke to me,
Because in the long, still dusks of Spring
You can hear the whole world whispering;
The shy green grasses making love,
The feathers grow on the dear grey dove,
The tiny heart of the redstart beat,
The patter of the squirrel's feet,
The pebbles pushing in the silver streams,
The rushes talking in their dreams,
The swish-swish of the bat's black wings,
The wild-wood bluebell's sweet ting-tings,
Humming and hammering at your ear,
Everything there is to hear
In the heart of hidden things.
But not in the midst of the nursery riot,
That's why I wanted to be quiet,
Couldn't do my sums, or sing,
Or settle down to anything.
And when, for that, I was sent upstairs
I did kneel down to say my prayers;
But the King who sits on your high church steeple
Has nothing to do with us fairy people!

'Times I pleased you, dear Father, dear Mother,
Learned all my lessons and liked to play,
And dearly I loved the little pale brother
Whom some other bird must have called away.
Why did they bring me here to make me
Not quite bad and not quite good,
Why, unless They're wicked, do They want, in spite,
to take me
Back to Their wet, wild wood?
Now, every nithing I shall see the windows shining,
The gold lamp's glow, and the fire's red gleam,
While the best of us are twining twigs and the rest of us
are whining
In the hollow by the stream.
Black and chill are Their nights on the wold;
And They live so long and They feel no pain:
I shall grow up, but never grow old,
I shall always, always be very cold,
I shall never come back again! 

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