I’ve been a Frances Hardinge fan for quite some time now, and I thought I’d revisit one of her books. I loved Cuckoo Song when it first came out as a UK edition and had very fond memories of it, but hadn’t actually reread it since. This post is very full of spoilers, so please tread carefully if you haven’t read this one yet and are planning to!
This book opens with an absence, a complete absence of memory and identity. It’s an opening that basically goes against all the writing advice ever given, and just goes to show that all writing advice is relative. Anyway: the opening is fitting, because the story is haunted by the people who are missing. Sebastien, the real Triss, even Mrs. Crescent who is physically present but creates a kind of absence by her refusal to act. What’s here is defined by what’s gone. In this sense, Hardinge’s choice of setting, England in the early 1920s, is inspired. Everyone is defined by who they have lost, and there are ghosts woven throughout the story (although not real ghosts, in this particular book).
Into this, someone who believes she is Triss Crescent wakes up. But everything is wrong and she has to struggle to find out who Triss is, or was, and who she herself will become. One of the marvelous things about Hardinge’s writing here is how she shows the claustrophobia of Triss’s life. Her parents, acting out of both selfish and selfless reasons, keep her swaddled in cotton and Triss, acting out of her own selfish and selfless reasons, plays along. It’s a life that is afraid, that is circumscribed, that is almost sterile. Mr and Mrs Crescent have never learned to see their daughters beyond their own desires for them, their own conceptions of who they are. As Pen says, “They can’t tell when real Triss is fake-crying, so of course they can’t tell when Fake Triss is real-crying.”
So one of the questions that haunts the book becomes: who is your real family? Does Fake Triss, the changeling child, the one who Pen names Trista, have a family? Is it the Crescents? Is it the fairy who made her and sent her into the human world to eat? The book, marvelously, steps aside from the boundary of those two choices and offers another one: Pen and Violet, the real Triss’s sister and her dead brother’s fiance’. The two who have always been on the outside of that circumscribed family life because they are too angry, too rebellious, too fast.
There are almost no real villains in this book. Instead, Hardinge shows us the terrible side of love in the price that some of the characters are willing to extract to protect those they care for. Love that turns aside from who the person they care about really is; love that hurts or takes from others to protect its own; love that sees a danger to the object of its care around every corner. What sets Trista, Pen, and Violet aside from this darker side of affection is complicated, but I think it has to do with the fact that they aren’t fooling themselves. They see their own selfishnesses and own them where Mr. Crescent cannot see how his desire to protect his daughters is hurting them.
There are definitely some creepy moments in this story–the doll thing is…well…yes. IT SURE IS A THING. And there are some details of the fairy world that are pretty eerie. But what I’m left with at the end of the book is a sense of the power of truly caring for each other, the giddy rush of knowing that your life is up to you to live. “All was perhaps. Nothing was certain.” And that is lovely.