Coming-of-age stories may be so popular because the transition from youth to adulthood is a commonality among every living person regardless of individual circumstances. The reading audience as a whole can identify with characters going through the same things they did, and this often makes for popular stories. Of course, the majority of readers will not be born with heart defects that require the strange melding of a clock to their body in order to live.
Thus the unusual situation in The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart by Mathias Malzieu. The main character, Jack, is orphaned at birth in late 1800’s Edinburgh Scotland. The midwife who runs the orphanage recognizes that Jack has a heart defect and so uses her talents to graft a cuckoo-clock into his chest. This will help his heart to function. She warns Jack the outside world may be too much for his fragile prosthesis and that strong emotions are to be avoided at all cost for fear they will irrevocably damage him. This suffices to keep him at the orphanage for the first ten years of his life.
Like most children, though, Jack has a curiosity and desire to explore. Eventually he convinces the midwife-turned-matriarchal figure to take him into the city so he may experience life outside the orphanage. She does so, and on that day Jack’s life changes forever, for destiny is about to arrange a meeting between him and the love of his life.
So begins the basic formula of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, etc. Malzieu’s novel continues to evolve from a coming-of-age tale into a love story. The novel’s pace picks up quickly; after the encounter, the young man begins to attend school where he hopes to meet the girl again. Much to his disappointment, Jack finds she has moved away. He quickly becomes ostracized and discouraged, and before the reader knows it, years have gone by and Jack is now fourteen, not ten. After a brutal fight in which Jack assaults the bully who has belittled him for years, he flees his childhood home and sets out across Europe, trying to find his missing love.
The action happens very fast, and the novel continues to accelerate at a pace that at times seems rushed. This may account for the book’s overall thinness – it tops out around one hundred and seventy pages and is by no means a difficult read. The surprise is that the story does not suffer from the quickness of its pace. The characters are interesting, and the plot is both easy to follow as well as intriguing.
Our teenage hero journeys through Europe, looking for the girl and encountering several historic figures on his way. When Jack eventually finds her working as a singer at the Extraordinarium, a sort of carnival-sideshow village, he sets about wooing her as a rather typical teenage romance ensues. But the reader will be reminded of the unusual circumstance of a clock in Jack’s chest – he was warned against ever falling in love because of the strain it would place on his fragile heart. As the novel climaxes and then begins to wind down, Jack learns several life lessons the hard way.
The themes of love and loss running through The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart may not be the most original, but that doesn’t make them any less powerful - especially when told by an author who has a gift for using descriptive language. Malzieu’s prose is by no means flowery. Instead, he packs meaning and imagery into succinct, often one-line sentences, that would make Hemingway proud.
On the day of Jack’s birth, “An eerie, freezing cold gridlocks the city.” At one point the main character describes himself as “tipsy on loneliness…” There are gems of descriptive language throughout the novel, especially in the love scenes. Later, when Jack describes his lover, he says: “Her neck is sprinkled with tiny beauty spots, in a constellation that descends to her breasts. I guess at the astronomy of her skin and bury my nose in her stars.” The writing is captivating, and this emphasizes the melancholic beauty of the novel.
As descriptive as the writing is, it does not overshadow the story. Readers will be excited as the plot progresses. Malzieu’s villains are as effective as his heroes, and the details for the various settings of the novel make not only the characters but the places of their lives – from the orphanage to the Extraordinarium – seem both real and fantastical at the same time.
The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart comes at the reader with a simple sort of intensity born from the main character’s exploration of life and love. At no point does Malzieu fail to provide the reader with a wonderful story, showing there is a great talent for writing in his work, and the story is well worth reading to find it.