In the month of October I picked up a couple of YA horror novels to help me get in the mood for Halloween. For whatever reason, I ended up reading one of them, Cuckoo Song by Francis Hardinge, in the wee hours of the morning when I couldn’t sleep. It took me a while to finish, and it was almost Thanksgiving by the time I did.
So my timing ended up being off for a horror story, but that’s okay, because Cuckoo Song isn’t really a horror story per se, although it’s pretty creepy and definitely has some twisted elements. Cuckoo Song tells the story of Triss, a perpetually ill child who’s sheltered by overly protective parents. Her older brother has just perished in World War I and her younger sister seems to harbor a thinly-veiled hatred for Triss. The book opens with Triss having suffered a terrible accident but being unable to remember any real details of the incident. She finds herself ravenously hungry, but normal food won’t satisfy her hunger–instead, she resorts to eating dolls and scraps of dresses. Weird, right? It only gets stranger.
Harding has created one of the more imaginative worlds I’ve read about this year, and I found myself immersed in Triss’ adventures. I admit to being surprised that we come to find out the reason behind her strange hunger (and the accident she suffered) about midway through the book, but the pacing doesn’t flag at all and the mystery just deepens. Although I didn’t feel compelled to push through the book at a fast pace, I found the reading to be very satisfying. A skillfully crafted creepiness pervades the book but never rises to what I’d consider the level of real horror. And that’s just fine, as it allows Hardinge to explore some significant themes of grief and suffering as well as the ties that bind siblings to each other.