The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

The Tell Tale Heart (Review of The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart by Mathias Malzieu)

The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart
Mathias Malzieu
Vintage 2011

Jack doesn't have the best start to life. The bastard child of an Edinburgh prostitute, he is delivered into the world into a small house on top of Arthur's Seat in the middle of a freezing winter in 1874. Adding insult to injury, his heart seems to be malfunctioning. Dr Madeleine (midwife, doctor, engineer and suspected witch) does her best, bolstering his failing organ with the mechanism from a cuckoo-clock. He somehow pulls through and, immediately abandoned by his mother, becomes a potential adoptee in Dr Madeleine's orphanage of oddities. He must also learn to live with the limitations imposed by his frail clockwork circulation - he can never touch it, never get excited and, more important than not feeding Mogwai after midnight, must never ever fall in love.

This isn't the end of Jack's troubles. Nobody wants a boy who goes 'tick, tock, tick, tock' all day long. Left on the shelf by Edinburgh's childless couples, he resigns himself to life with his eccentric family of drunks and whores. All this changes the day he finally ventures into the city, aching to explore life beyond the formerly volcanic peak of his home. Fate drives him into the path of Acacia, a beautiful young girl singing with an angelic voice which immediately captivates him. She ignites a passion within Jack which soon finds him facing down bullies, sharing a train carriage with Jack The Ripper, befriending George Melies and travelling across Europe to track her down and proclaim his love.

Mathias Malzieu's The Boy With The Cuckoo-Clock Heart is by turns entrancing and infuriating. The prose can be wonderful, with turns of phrase which will have your highlighter running dry by the time you're finished. The fact that I read a translation of a French original makes this all the more remarkable. Understandably it sometimes stumbles but on the whole it is a gorgeous, flowing read. The infuriation comes from Jack himself, a leading character whose obvious infirmity pleads for sympathy from the start but whose outright obsession makes him a difficult boy to root for.

His pursual of Acacia begins as a dashing adventure, seeking high and low and discovering new countries, before it starts to sink in that underneath it all, maybe Jack isn't playing with a full deck. This single-minded mission drives him to all but forget his friends back in Edinburgh. He fails to truly interact with anyone else, isolating himself and avoiding anything approaching intimacy, utterly blinded by his passion. Looking back at the book I began to think that this is perhaps deliberate - if he only had a working heart, which Acacia could perhaps grant him, then he might stand a chance of living a normal life. However it also serves to give the book an unwelcome level of discomfort which is jarring when set against the fairytale atmosphere kindled elsewhere.

Turning our attention to the object of his affections, Acacia is similarly flawed in character. I realise that we can't expect perfection from literary characters any more than those in real life but the reader really struggles to appreciate what Jack sees in her. Regardless of Jack's impossibly flawless, lovestruck descriptions she seldom appears to truly care for anyone in her life. Her moods swing from aloofness to apathy by way of the odd bout of righteous indignation, making it difficult to truly care whether Jack can finally breach the gates to her heart - in fact you may find yourself hoping for the opposite!
Despite these flaws, The Boy With The Cuckoo-Clock Heart remains an engaging read, and a brief one at that. There are enough well-crafted turns within its covers to warm most jaded hearts, from Jack's childhood friends, the bizarre yet compassionate prostitutes Anna and Luna to the caricature of legendary film pioneer George Melies joining an Andalusian circus. The magical realm which Mathias Malzieu has constructed within eaily-recongisable historical and geographical settings mostly offsets any annoyances which the main characters engender. If you can switch off your inner critic for a few hours and just enjoy a good story well told then The Boy With The Cuckoo-Clock Heart is definitely one to add to the fireside, rainy day reading list.

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones.  The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is available now.

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