The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart
‘The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart’ by Mathias Malzieu is the tale of a boy with a heart almost magically preserved by clockwork, who must never fall in love, or else his heart’s mechanism will break. Fancy a ride in this steampunk funfair?
A boy with a heart almost magically preserved by clockwork, who must never fall in love, or else his heart’s mechanism will break. An ‘illusioniste extraordinaire’ who creates moving images and who wants to travel to the moon in a cart. A world that we can almost recognize, but not quite, an illusion of the fin-de-siècle dissolving in the tick-tock of a cuckoo-clock. This is what ‘The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart’ is all about – fancy a ride in this steampunk funfair?
‘The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart’ (originally ‘La Mécanique du Coeur’) is a short novel with a steampunk atmosphere, written by artist Mathias Malzieu (also the lead singer of the rock band Dionysos). The book’s plot is set in a Burton-style nineteenth century Europe, moving from Scotland to Spain, and creating a mesmerizing background of familiar places seen through the lens of an imagined past. The story is about an orphan boy by the name of Jack who lives thinking that his biological heart is sustained by an implanted cuckoo-clock, and that, the moment this cuckoo-clock should cease to function, his heart would also stop. One of the main conditions for his cuckoo-clock heart to survive is for him never to fall in love. Of course, one sunny day, Jack does fall in love with a pretty girl named Acacia, who, though short-sighted, has a wonderfully charming voice and sings like an angel. Against all odds, the boy with the cuckoo-clock heart he decides to pursue his Cinderella all the way to Andalusia, meeting on his way all sorts of characters, from the most gruesome (Jack the Ripper, writing a letter in blood on a late-night train) to the most endearing (Georges Méliès, inspired by the real-life Méliès, one of the first film-makers, who was also famous for his career as an illusionist, and who, later in life, owned a toyshop in Paris).
The book has a lot of funny moments and witty as well as candid dialogue, but it is also strewn with darker, sometimes sad, at other times unsettling elements, which give the story a bitter-sweet flavour that becomes addictive after a while. The ending of the novel is surprising and it gives the plot a final, decisive twist that can completely change the reader’s understanding of the story and the characters. I’m not saying what it is, you have to read it to find out!
One of the most enjoyable things about ‘The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart’ is precisely the way in which it is written. The narrative is mostly told from the boy’s point of view, in the innocent, almost naïve voice of someone who has been trapped inside the house for most of his life, and is now seeing the world for the very first time. This transforms the book’s reality into a mystery that asks to be explored and understood. And yet this reality remains mysterious until the very end, keeping its secret under lock and key, never yielding an inch, pleasantly fuelling a sense of suspense or even exquisite dread. Besides this, all of the characters, even the most minor ones, seem to have a way about them that renders them fascinating – they are all powerful individualities often with personal stories of their own that are hinted at. First of all, there is the protagonist’s adoptive mother of sorts, Dr Madeleine, a witch-doctor who likes to fix people and who collects bottles of her own tears. There are Anna and Luna, the two ladies of doubtful virtue, who mainly act as the two loving aunts to the boy with the cuckoo-clock heart, and also Arthur, the retired policeman with the ‘musical spine’, which he allows Jack to play from time to time. There’s Joe, the school bully, who is also in love with the beautiful and talented Acacia, and Brigitte Heim, the cold and aloof manager of the ‘Extraordinarium’ fair, who employs Jack as the main attraction of her ‘Ghost Train’.
The way in which Malzieu manages to entwine historical places (fin-de-siècle Edinburgh, Paris and Granada) and characters (Jack the Ripper, Georges Méliès) with pure fantasy is one of the other fascinating aspects of the book. Though the story effectively begins ‘on the 16th of April 1874’, there is little else that points to the historical past. ‘The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart’ is entirely set in a dream-world, a past manufactured by an uncanny imagination.
This review would not be complete, however, without mentioning the cover artwork, a steampunk-style illustration by artist Benjamin Lacombe, showing the waif-like figures of Jack and Acacia, courting each other timelessly against the background of a ghostly town which could be anywhere. This illustration, I think, turns Malzieu’s book into a precious little jewel, whose soft surreal prettiness points at you and beckons you to grab the novel and read it. I shall leave you with the clip for the song ‘Tais Toi Mon Coeur’ (‘Shut up, My Heart’), from the album bearing the same title as Malzieu’s book, sung by Malzieu’s band, Dionysos, and his partner, Olivia Ruiz:
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