A fantastical novel, a wildly inventive tale—by turns poignant and funny, lusty and wrenching—about love and heartbreak. Edinburgh, 1874: Born with a frozen heart, Jack is nearly dead when his mother abandons him to the care of Dr. Madeleine—witch doctor, midwife, protector of orphans—who saves Jack by placing a cuckoo clock in his chest. It is in her orphanage that Jack grows up, amid tear-filled flasks, eggs containing memories, a man with a musical spine.
As Jack gets older, Dr. Madeleine warns him that his heart is too fragile for strong emotions: he must never, ever fall in love. And, of course, he does: on his 10th birthday and with head-over-heels abandon. The object of his ardor is Miss Acacia—a bespectacled young street performer with a soul-stirring voice. But it’s not only Jack’s heart that’s at risk, it’s his very life—and doubly so when he injures the school bully in a fight for the affections of the beautiful singer. Now begins a wild journey, of escape and pursuit, from Edinburgh to Paris to Miss Acacia’s home in Andalusia, where Jack will finally learn the great joys, and ultimately the greater costs, of owning a fully formed heart.
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
“[A]ffords considerable escapist pleasures….Malzieu sketches European landscapes and crafts figurative language with irresistible relish….Calling to mind a host of cultural touchstones, from Pinocchio to The Wizard of Oz, this kaleidoscopic picaresque will enchant many adults and young people alike.” (Publishers Weekly)
Malzieu's prose is distinctly original, spitting and fizzing with unique similes and striking metaphors, wonderfully translated by Sarah Ardizzone. (Guardian)
“A phantasmagorical novel." (Booklist)
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