By Gwendolyn Dawson
Jack, the first-person narrator of Mathias Malzieu’s most recent novel, is born in Edinburgh on an uncommonly cold day in April 1874. A clever midwife saves the newborn from certain death by surgically implanting a cuckoo clock in his chest to regulate his weak heart. Abandoned by his mother and sporting a loudly ticking clock for a heart, Jack is destined to be an outsider. Nevertheless, he falls in love with a beautiful girl and, while still a teenager, embarks on a cross-continental journey to follow his love to Andalusia, where she’s originally from.
The Boy with the Cuckoo Clock Heart is an adult fairy tale. As is typical with such tales, many of the characters are thinly developed and highly stylized. Fantastical events and complicated metaphors abound. The novel’s primary message appears to be that our self-imposed limitations are the only obstacles to achieving what we desire. Unfortunately, this rather hopeful message is diluted in the final pages with a jarring and confusing plot reversal, making for an unsatisfying ending.
Malzieu’s unique prose is the greatest strength of The Boy with the Cuckoo Heart Clock. It’s an elegant combination of fairy-tale whimsy and Dickensian realism. Malzieu excels at combining opposite concepts in startling ways, like this example of the juxtaposition of death and birth: “It is so cold that birds freeze in mid-flight before crashing to the ground. The noise as they drop out of the sky is uncannily soft for a corpse. This is the coldest day on earth, and I’m getting ready to be born.” The Boy with a Cuckoo Heart Clock offers an unsatisfactory story packaged in beautiful and unusual prose.
The Boy with the Cuckoo Clock Heart by Mathias Malzieu (translated from the French by Sarah Ardizzone) is published in the United States by Knopf.
Gwendolyn Dawson is the founder of Literary License. Her reviews appear there and here every Wednesday.