There is a very specific audience for French pop star Mathias Malzieu’s third book: European fans of his music, English-speaking fans of gothic emo fare like Tim Burton or Stephenie Meyer, and international academics hankering for some new wave French sensualism. Sarah Ardizzone, who has won numerous major awards for her translations of French children’s books, seems to have done an exceptional job with Malzieu’s often unfocused writing, elevating it to a level of poetry that may often help you forget that the author has not properly fleshed out some bits of characterization and plot. Alongside a superior translation is the extremely entertaining narrative capability of Jim Dale, who has won a record 10 Audie Awards, in addition to two Grammy Awards and a bunch more nominations.
Dale transforms the author’s unsophisticated probing of a 14-year-old boy’s emotional depths as much as possible into a heart-wrenching and engrossing tale of two star-crossed lovers. Little Jack, whose heart uses a cuckoo clock for a pacemaker, is finally strong enough at age nine to go into town, where he falls immediately in love with Miss Acacia, a touring young singer with terrible eyesight. After several years spent pining for this girl on the strength of one hour’s connection, Jack makes his way through foreign lands and many perils to win her over. He encounters the problem of her previous lover, a bully named Joe, as well as the general problem of their rocky teenage emotional turmoil. One of the most surprising and thought-provoking bits is an utterly bizarre conversation with Jack the Ripper, who little Jack meets while travelling by train.
As the scene hopscotches across Europe, Dale expertly and seamlessly transitions from Edinburgh brogue to London lilt, from Parisian plosives to Andalusian rolling r’s. His portrayal of each character is less like narrating and more like acting, as the best voice work should be. With Malzieu’s penchant for romantic doom and gloom, there is plenty of overly emotional fodder for Dale to really showcase his full range. in many places, the author aspires to be Roald Dahl, but ends up passing up on chances to do something significant with his characters. This is certainly a book that is better heard than read, as Jim Dale gives a magical liveliness and credibility to what would otherwise be a forgettable, simplistic tale of one special boy’s rained upon parade. As it stands, The Boy with the Cuckoo Clock Heart is a great example of what a truly gifted narrator can do with a relatively ordinary book. Megan Volpert