The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart: Probably better as music

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Mathias Malzieu The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock HeartThe Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart by Mathias Malzieu

The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart, according to the back flap, is the “basis for an album that [Mathias] Malzieu wrote.” I’d like to hear the album because I’m thinking his source material may have been better served in that medium. The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart isn’t a bad book, but even for a novella there isn’t much there and too much of it is either implied, assumed, or not earned; all of which wouldn’t matter in an album, but is disappointing in a book.

The main character, Jack, is given his odd heart at birth in 1874, when his own heart freezes on the coldest day ever in Edinburgh. Dr. Madeline is the mid-wife who gives him the heart to keep him alive and who takes him from his mother, who gives him up for adoption. Dr. Madeline warns Jack as he grows that his heart is too fragile for strong emotion and he should, therefore, never fall in love.

Of course, that is just what Jack does, with a diminutive singer named Miss Accacia. His rival for her affection is the school bully and after a horrible fight, Jack is forced to flee Edinburgh, though it dovetails nicely with his intent to find Miss Accacia who has already left the city. Along the way he picks up a magician friend, finds work in an odd little amusement/fair area, and learns both the joys and the pains of loving with a heart, whether flesh or wood.

There is a nice sense of whimsy through especially the beginning of the book, a bit of Pinocchio, a bit of Tim Burton, and a strong sense of emotion at the start with his relationships with Dr. Madeline and some of her patients — an alcoholic named Arthur and a pair of prostitutes. And the inevitable love that the reader knows is coming weights heavy on the mind. But when it’s introduced, in the form of Miss Accacia, it just never feels real. We’re told repeatedly Jack is in love, but the reader never feels it. Beyond the direct dialogue, there just isn’t any conveyance of the strength/depth necessary for us to care not just about the love, but its impact. The bully compounds the problem as he allegedly turns against Jack because he too loves Miss Accacia, but once more, we neither see nor feel it.

The rest of the book is hampered by that simple problem, and so while we dutifully follow Jack on his trek to find her again, and watch as he does and see how their relationship begins or ends, we honestly just don’t care much. The reintroduction of the bully at the end makes matters even worse.

Stylistically, there are some wonderfully inventive images in the novella, though it suffers from an overuse of simile/metaphor that on occasion pile one atop the other and become a distraction, especially when they don’t neatly work together, as is sometimes the case. This is especially true early on; Malzieu’s restraint later in the book makes the good ones shine all the better.

In the end, the core image — the boy with a cuckoo-clock heart — is a wonderfully inventive and compelling one, while the underlying suspense of when love will strike and what it’s impact will be is equally so. But the execution of story beyond image and premise falls short of their promise. I plan to check out the album, though; I can see Malzieu’s imagery and impressionistic sense working much better in music stripped of the need for straight narrative.

The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart — (2010) Publisher: FIRSTLY: don’t touch the hands of your cuckoo-clock heart. SECONDLY: master your anger. THIRDLY: never, ever fall in love. For if you do, the hour hand will poke through your skin, your bones will shatter, and your heart will break once more. Edinburgh, 1874. Born with a frozen heart, Jack is near death when his mother abandons him to the care of Dr. Madeleine — witch doctor, midwife, protector of orphans — who saves Jack by placing a cuckoo clock in his chest. And it is in her orphanage that Jack grows up among tear-filled flasks, eggs containing memories, and a man with a musical spine. As Jack gets older, Dr. Madeleine warns him that his heart is too fragile for strong emotions: he must never, ever fall in love. And, of course, this is exactly what he does: on his tenth birthday and with head-over-heels abandon. The object of his ardor is Miss Acacia — abespectacled young street performer with a soul-stirring voice. But now Jack’s life is doubly at risk — his heart is in danger and so is his safety after he injures the school bully in a fight for the affections of the beautiful singer. Now begins a journey of escape and pursuit, from Edinburgh to Paris to Miss Acacia’s home in Andalusia. Mathias Malzieu’s The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is a fantastical, wildly inventive tale of love and heartbreak — by turns poignant and funny — in which Jack finally learns the great joys, and ultimately the greater costs, of owning a fully formed heart.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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