Unaware Monster Girl: The Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge


Paperback, 409 pages
Published May 8th 2014 by Pan MacMillan
Source: Finished Copy sent by Publisher

“I don’t know. How can you know? I…I’m a monster. When I’m hungry, I might do anything.”
“Oh no, of course I couldn’t possibly understand you.” Violet’s shadowed face seemed to be wearing a grim and serious smile. “I know, you woke up one day and found out that you couldn’t be the person you remembered being, the little girl everybody expected you to be. You just weren’t her any more, and there was nothing you could do about it. So your family decided you were a monster and turned on you.” Violet sighed, staring out into the darkness.

“Believe me, I do understand that. And let me tell you – from one monster to another – that just because somebody tells you you’re a monster, it doesn’t mean you are.

“just now you told me what you did because you want me to stop you from eating Pen. If you were a real monster, you wouldn’t have done that, would you?”

Trista’s eyes stung, and she wiped strands of cobweb away with her sleeve.

“Idiot,” added Violet, for good measure.”

I have a lot to say about this novel but before I do, here’s the synopsis:

When Triss wakes up after an accident, she knows that something is very wrong. She is insatiably hungry; her sister seems scared of her and her parents whisper behind closed doors. She looks through her diary to try to remember, but the pages have been ripped out.

Soon Triss discovers that what happened to her is more strange and terrible than she could ever have imagined, and that she is quite literally not herself. In a quest find the truth she must travel into the terrifying Underbelly of the city to meet a twisted architect who has dark designs on her family – before it’s too late…

When we first meet the protagonist of The Cuckoo’s Song, she identifies herself as Trista but as the narrative progresses and her awareness of her self deepens and what she perceives as her humanity is sloughed away, the name she identifies herself by changes. From Trista she moves to Not-Trista until finally she finally takes a whole new name for herself that identifies as the person she is and not as the person she was shaped to replace.

The Cuckoo’s Song is a strange and beautiful novel; the title refers to the story of cuckoos leaving their young in the nests of other birds to be fed and raised and this cuckoo-child, this Not-Triss is telling her story, a story that usually does not get heard.

When Not-Triss opens her eyes for the first time all she remembers is an accident and nothing else. Her parents are loving strangers to her and her sister, Pen, is hostile and distinctly unfriendly. Not-Triss (though at this time she call herself Trista) gradually starts feeling a hunger that food doesn’t seem to satiate. She begins to realize her own strangeness and turns to her parents for help but they don’t just fail her, they betray her.

“It’s as if they’re wearing a lie, but it doesn’t fit them.’ Trista tried to straighten her thoughts. ‘They haven’t buttoned it the right way, so it’s baggy in some places and coming away in others.”

The only person who can help her or even seems to desire to is Viola, her dead ‘brother’s’ girlfriend and her ‘sister’ Pen whose hostility gives way to a reluctant fondness when she perceives that Trista is not her hated older sister.

This is a much darker middle-grade novel than you would expect from the genre and indeed fans of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline will love this. The book deals with themes of evil versus good and the gray area in between; it discusses the dynamics in a family and takes a much franker look at parents and their many foibles than is usually common in a children’s novel. There is something almost cynical in the way not-Triss comes to sad realizations about her parents as flawed people. But perhaps prevalent theme in this novel is the question of identity and humanity as Triss finds out things about herself that she didn’t really want to know. Her quest to cohere an identity for herself that is truly her own and not a pale reflection of anyone else is the heart of this novel.

Throughout this novel, one particular thing is reiterated once and again: adults will let you down. I found one of the scenes in the book, a turning point, to be fascinating in the way it portrayed adults as the true antagonists of the story. The novel reduces adults in very interesting ways and the only positive “adult” is a young adult who, it can be argued, still holds on to childhood in some fleeting way. At some points heartbreaking and at others hopeful, The Cuckoo’s Song will leave you melancholic and thinking. It’s a marvelous tale of a girl who was created a monster but fought her way to being a person despite all the obstacles that stood in her way.

“Suddenly there were two strong arms around her, holding her tightly, more tightly than Triss’s parents had ever dared to hug Triss. Violet smelt of oil, cigarettes, and some kind of perfume. Her coat was rough against Not-Triss’s face. Not Triss could feel Pen there too, scrambling to be part of it, resting her head against Not-Triss’s back.

“You’re all thorny,” whispered Pen, shifting position.

“I’ll hurt you both,” whispered Not-Triss. “My thorns – they’ll hurt you.”

“What, me?” answered Violet. “Don’t be silly. I’m tough as nails. I’ve got a hide like a dreadnought.”

Violet did not feel cold or metallic lke nails or a battleship. She felt warm. Her voice was a bit shaky, but her hug was as firm as the hills or the horizons.”

8 responses to “Unaware Monster Girl: The Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge

  1. Thought the book does not sound like one I may read (I have to limit my choices dues to shortage of time) I found your review very engaging. I like your approach that, though giving necessary detail, does not appear to spoil the story for prospective readers.

    • I really loved Violet too. I loved how she was the heroic character and subverting tropes left, right, and center. Such a great book. That scene when they try to throw her into the fireplace…so emotionally rife.

  2. Oh, this book, this book! I love this book!

    That’s a very good point about all the adults being the antagonists; I hadn’t really clued into that before. A lot of Diana Wynne Jones stories have a similar sort of trope, if you can call it that: the idea that adults shut themselves off from truth and therefore can’t be trusted to understand anything important.

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