Previously published in Dawn Books & Authors.
ELEVEN-year-old Triss wakes up one day to find that she can’t remember everything she should be able to. Of course, these people are her parents; of course she has a pesky, annoying little sister who hates her; and yes, she’s always been weakly and sick, and so her parents do take extra special care of her. But somehow that’s not enough. There are large gaps in her memory, things she has to search very hard to recall. Things are familiar, but in a way that makes her feel that this could be someone else’s life — even her own body doesn’t feel entirely her own. Her hairbrush comes away with twigs, spider webs seem to cling to her eyelashes and her dolls begin to come alive and accuse her of terrible things.
Strange things begin to happen to, and around Triss, in Frances Hardinge’s lovely, haunting little changeling story, Cuckoo Song. It’s not just her dolls coming to life: it’s also scissors that don’t behave in her hands; her sister who refuses to look at her; and a constant, unending hunger that just can’t be satiated no matter how much Triss eats. She knows she almost drowned in the Grimmer, a water body that seems to watch her with “its vast, lightless slit of an eye”, but she doesn’t know what changed when she survived; what could make her feel so hungry, so empty, and so ill at ease in her own home. She doesn’t understand why pages from her diary have been torn out, or why her parents are hiding things, like the fact that her dead brother seems to be writing them letters years after he was killed in the war; letters that seem to be delivered secretly by some sort of tiny, vicious little sprite-creature.
In a particularly strange and frightening scene when Triss wakes from “sleep that is puddle-thin and streaked with dreams”, she climbs out of her bedroom window and eats dozens of windfall apples, many of them rotten. She does not taste them, barely chews and simply swallows them whole to try and fill the emptiness that constantly rages inside her. It’s a weird, surreal moment that really shows just how alien Triss has become, and one that leads on to something even creepier. Because it isn’t until she eats one of her dolls, swallowing its ceramic head and cloth pin-cushion body whole, that she feels any sense of satisfaction at all. How can a young girl swallow a doll with no damage to herself? How is Triss able to see and hear things that others cannot? What has she become, that she cannot satisfy her hunger by food alone?
Her sister Pen seems to be insisting that Triss isn’t herself quite literally — that she is some sort of changeling child, a stranger come to take the place of the real Triss. But since we read the story entirely from Triss’s point of view, we know that she is innocent — none of this makes sense to her and for the first third of the novel, she is guessing at explanations for her behaviour as much as the reader is.
Cuckoo Song is a changeling story indeed but from the perspective of the changeling. Though often seen as evil, spiteful creatures, Hardinge’s changeling isn’t that simple or that evil — in Cuckoo Song the changeling slowly develops from victim to empowered heroine, while causing change in those around her as well. In fact, none of Hardinge’s characters are simple enough to be called good or bad — even the arch- villain, a man known only as the Architect, only wants to save his people and give them a safe harbour. Triss and her father are caught up in this scheme — Triss inadvertently and her father by his own conscious choice, a choice that he makes for selfish reasons.
Just as the Architect is not all-evil, Triss’s parents too, aren’t all-good, as much as they seem to be. Her mother is mostly passive-aggressive and walks away from a certain violent incident rather than face up to what she is willing to have done; though Triss’s father is willing to get his hands dirty. It’s horrific at the time, until Hardinge reminds us that these are just parents willing to do anything for their little girl. Even Triss’s sister, the annoying and tantrum-throwing Pen, turns out to be much more than just that — growing into a smart, brave little girl who stands her ground, though it is her jealousy that caused a great deal of the plot to go into motion. Ultimately, each of the characters has only ‘good’ intentions, even when they agree to do ‘bad’ things.
Set in post-WWI England, Cuckoo Song is a dark fairy tale that also comments on the changes taking place in society: whether it was the depression of those suffering from losing loved ones in the war, or the determination of women who took over roles traditionally considered to be ‘male’; the heralding of the jazz age, or of cinema, or the great booming changes in transport and architecture.
Never unnecessarily romantic, Hardinge paints a complete picture of the landscape, particularly emphasising the changes in society that affected women at that time by using the character of Triss’s almost sister-in-law Violet as an example of all that women were growing up to be. Violet is independent, free-spirited and strong — she is ultimately the only one who can understand Triss, having struggled with change and the need for acceptance herself.
The polished craft of Hardinge’s language is incredible. It is not enough to say that she turns a good phrase because she turns many, elaborate, rich and evocative phrases: a shocked cry sounds “the way a scar looks”; a day creeps in “like a disgraced cat, with a thin, mewling wind and fine, slanting rain”; dreams await “at the mouse hole of [Triss’s] 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 doesn’t hold back when it comes to adding to the story’s dark, brooding atmosphere, instead she revels in the language, filling the narrative to its utmost with luscious imagery.
The plot is well woven, with many twists along the way. Calling this a changeling story or suggesting that Triss is not who or what she seems may seem to be a bit of a spoiler, but it is in fact just one reveal along a much more elaborate plot arc. Who Triss is, is not the point of the story: who she becomes and what she chooses to do is the far more interesting story.
Cuckoo Song is about people creating stories and changing narratives, it is about friendship, and about what it means to be a monster or create magic. Hardinge writes of how once people told stories by the fire “to hold back the dark. But the dark always finds its way into the stories … The stories worth hearing, at least.” Triss’s story is one of those.