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—a bespectacled 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.
Mathias Malzieu is not someone I would have found if it hadn’t been for the youtube video of his book. When I first saw it, I thought it was Pixar production. Then I watched it some more, then I got bewitched, and I had to read the book.
How do I describe “The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart”? Is it magical realism? Yes, a bit. Is it family drama? That too. Is it a romantic drama? Definitely. Is it anything concrete? Nope.
There are things I liked and things I didn’t. I enjoyed how this supposedly fantastical read delivers a poignant lesson about relationships. I love how Malzieu packs so much punch in such a short read. I really, really loved his turns of phrase, to the point where I will actually pull quotes from Goodreads to show you:
“We love each other like matches in the dark. We don’t talk, we catch fire instead.”
“What am I afraid of? Of you, or more precisely, of me without you.”
“You know, when I was in love, I was always inventing things. A whole array of tricks,
illusions and optical effects to amuse my lady friend. I think she'd had enough of my
inventions by the end... I wanted to create a voyage to the moon just for her, but what I
should have given her was a real journey on earth.”
-Mathias Malzieu, “The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart”
Isn’t that just lovely?
Pretty prose, gothic atmosphere and a bittersweet love story - can I ask for more?
Well, maybe. Just a little bit. In spite of the fact that this book is by miles better than a great deal of YA I’ve read, it is, ultimately, the story of a very lonely boy with a very unhealthy obsession with a girl. So unhealthy, in fact, that he travels across Europe to find her, and then goes on to make her the center of his universe. It’s a bit uncomfortable to read, and if the text glorified that, I would have been really disappointed.
However, that doesn’t happen, and I’m infinitely grateful. The dark, dark tone of the book, offset by the rare bursts of humor, works well with the story Malzieu’s telling, and makes for a satisfying, thoughtful read.
Note: Images, quotes and synopsis via Goodreads.