The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart by Mathias Malzieu
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful
Malzieu’s The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is a fantastical tale of one boy’s struggle to love “normally” and not “crookedly.” The reader meets the boy, Jack, at birth, where a strange confluence of events results in his infant heart being fused with a cuckoo-clock, in what would be a 19th Century makeshift-pacemaker. We ride along with him to witness his first encounter with Miss Acacia and his discovery of the idea of love (or perhaps, more correctly and eerily, a ten-year old boy’s discovery of “lust”) and how that love grows, painfully and tragically, over time. The story is told in the style of, perhaps, the Brothers Grimm or Lewis Carroll, a phantasmagorical-type whimsy which shares an innate fatalism as the likes of Hans Christian Andersen. The tale certainly bears more relationship to the original story of The Little Mermaid than it does to the Disney version, which means there is no happy ending – so do not be expecting one. When I say the prose was believable, I am not being literal in any sense. The story on its surface is completely bizarre, imperfect and, at times, hard to follow. Still, it is magical in the old-school sense of literary-wizardry. There is something of Cormier’s I am the Cheese in the looped and revelatory ending, coupled with the almost scary fantasy of Spenser’s epic tale, The Fairie Queene (referring largely to the employment of allegory and symbolism, and not to imply that this book is written in verse). The reader is led to believe, right up to the end, that Jack may finally get the girl and learn to live with his new heart but, alas, only one of these realities may come to pass. There is something truly great and real about this, though, and though we learn some disturbing things about Dr. Madeline, the witch-doctor who places that cuckoo-clock in Jack’s chest, we also can understand and appreciate her sad motivation.
2 – Characters slightly developed.
The novel’s only downfall, for me, is the characterization and character development, or lack thereof. We do see Jack grow and learn from his mistakes, though he goes off repeatedly on the same doomed journey but, other than this, we do not learn much about any of the characters and what we do know remains static throughout. The story is strengthened in this regard due to the fact that it is, really, a fairy tale and not a traditional novel, so not as much time or attention needs to be paid to its characters, since the importance is meant to be placed on the story itself and its delivery (which is extraordinary). Fairy tales are often didactic or morality tales, and they are meant to be told in a beautiful way, but without much depth. This is certainly the case for The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart as, somehow, the reader is meant to believe that this boy could fall so head-over-heels in love and lust for a girl at the age of ten, and then to pursue her across the continent, repeatedly, even journeying after her again when he has just come out of a months-long coma. The character relationships are weak and are not really meant to be trusted, but this is because the real story is the action of Jack’s growing up – putting aside his old, wooden clock of fantasy and accepting his new, logical clock, which keeps him more firmly grounded in reality. Still, had the author managed to somehow maintain this creepy, fantastical tale and also incorporate deeper, more realistic or at least rounded characters, the beautiful fairy tale could, perhaps, have become a great novel.
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.
From the first sentence of the first page, Malzieu’s characteristically-French prose (translated into English quite masterfully) drew me in completely. It is clear that the author spent much time on the style and prose, so as to allow his story to unfold in the disturbingly magical way that it does – a feat that would not have been accomplished in most circumstances. Many reviews find the novel’s prose to be the only redeeming quality for the book, and I can understand this sentiment, as it far outshines the characterization and the plot itself, the former being weak and the latter being simply bizarre. Still, Malzieu certainly understands that his story is strange and extraordinary – it is the mark of a true artist that he managed to deliver the unusual story with a unique and effective prose and style, equal to the peculiarity of the fairy tale. There are some confusing historical references, such as the comments on the Tour de France which, as far as I know, was not happening in the late-1800s, but it is possible to accept these as confusion from a narrator who is reflecting on the story of his boyhood while writing as an older man or to accept them as flaws in the story and move on (as I did). Also, some of the sexual references can be odd, particularly when coming from a ten year old, but upon reflection and discussion with others about when (and how) boys begin to fantasize, I believe these burgeoning sexual feelings are acceptable, if not completely comfortable. There is something very similar in style to Shane Jones’s Light Boxes, which begins to make me wonder if we are on the cusp of a new literary movement. How exciting!
Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
The Boy with the Cuckoo-clock Heart is a terrifying marriage of Peter Pan and Pinocchio. We have, here, the fantasy-boy, whose life and self-image is largely designed by a lonely, childless elder, similar to Pinocchio’s Geppetto, and we have the boy’s struggle with maturity and growth – the Peter Pan who never wants to grow up, or who just cannot figure out how to do it. The story is a dark and cynical fairy tale which, admittedly, will not be for everyone; in fact, I would be reluctant to recommend the book to anyone, as it is rather sad, confusing, and bizarre. That being said, the overall sentiment is the dangerous power of love – unwelcome, unrequited, unrealized, or unknown. It is one of the most fascinating and ever-present themes in literature and in life. Malzieu delivers his version of this never-ending story in an eccentric way, but it is outlandishly beautiful and poignant, despite the failures in characterization and the not-so-happy ending.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult, Literary
Interest: Postmodernism, French Literature, Coming-of-Age, Phantasmagoria, Fairy Tale