The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart

( 6 )


Edinburgh, 1874: Little Jack is born with a frozen heart and immediately undergoes a life-saving operation — the implantation of a cuckoo-clock in his chest. From then on his days all begin with a wind-up, in this dark, tender fairy tale spiced with devilish humour.
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Edinburgh, 1874: Little Jack is born with a frozen heart and immediately undergoes a life-saving operation — the implantation of a cuckoo-clock in his chest. From then on his days all begin with a wind-up, in this dark, tender fairy tale spiced with devilish humour.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A fantastic voyage . . . A whimsical fairy-tale of a book—for adults . . . It’s like a dark version of Alice in Wonderland or Pinocchio . . . A quick and entertaining read that people who like fantasy-fiction and folk tales will appreciate.”
—Jenny Dial, Houston Chronicle

“The brilliance of this gothic-punk novella, sparkling with imagery filtered through the prism of French film-makers Jeunet and Caro, is in the telling: Malzieu’s prose is distinctly original, spitting and fizzing with unique similes and striking metaphors, wonderfully translated by Sarah Ardizzone.”
—Eric Brown, The Guardian (London)

“A little literary miracle.”
Glamour (Paris)

“[A] fantastical European journey of love and discovery.”
—Billy Heller, New York Post “Required Reading”

“Malzieu has a gift for unexpected and strong images.”
Elle (Paris)

“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

“A dreamlike and spellbinding novel.”
Le Figaro Littéraire (Paris)

“Malzieu uses vivid metaphors and fantastical inventions to craft a beautifully written tale of love, both maternal and romantic . . . The prose style is simple and fluid, and the setting is not unlike a Tim Burton film—dreamy, dark, and magical—so it’s no surprise that this novel is being adapted into an animated film. For fans of magical realism and fairy tales.”
Library Journal

“A fairy tale jeu d’esprit, but charming all the same.”
Metro (UK)

From the Hardcover edition.

Publishers Weekly
Set in late-19th-century Europe, this slim, melancholy, and sometimes thin novel affords considerable escapist pleasures. At 14, Jack, a misfit orphan with a cuckoo-clock installed in his chest, treks across Europe in search of Miss Acacia, “a little singer... who's always bumping into things,” he met four years before. In Paris, he finds a companion in Méliès, a lovesick, quixotic magician, and as their journey unfolds, Malzieu sketches European landscapes and crafts figurative language with irresistible relish: Miss Acacia's laugh, for instance, is “as light as beads tumbling over a xylophone.” After Jack reaches Spain and finds Miss Acacia, he embarks on a tumultuous relationship with his beloved that will alter his life forever. Despite a few too-cutesy sexual metaphors and coming-of-age tropes, the novel's sentimentality only rarely devolves into treacle. 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. (Mar.)
Library Journal
Lead singer of the French band Dionysos, Malzieu approaches writing more like a film director than an author, as his first novel to be translated into English shows. Malzieu uses vivid metaphors and fantastical inventions to craft a beautifully written tale of love, both maternal and romantic. Saved from death with a grafted clock for a heart, little Jack is warned by his adopted mother never to fall in love lest his fragile clock-heart break. Despite this parental warning, Jack becomes entranced with a young dancer. His emotions stir him to violence, forcing him to flee his home and to embark upon a journey to find the object of his affection. Along the way he meets a range of characters from Jack the Ripper to Georges Melies, the first cinematographic director. VERDICT The prose style is simple and fluid, and the setting is not unlike a Tim Burton film—dreamy, dark, and magical—so it's no surprise that this novel is being adapted into an animated film. For fans of magical realism and fairy tales.—Joshua Finnell, Denison Univ. Lib., Granville, OH
Kirkus Reviews
First the broken heart, then love, in this reverse-sequence fantasy about a medical freak, French musician/novelist Malzieu's first U.S. publication. On the coldest day on earth, Little Jack is born with a heart frozen solid. His teenage mother disappears for good; Jack owes his survival to resourceful midwife Dr. Madeleine, who attaches a cuckoo clock to his heart to get it beating. This happens in Edinburgh on April 16, 1874. Good-hearted Madeleine raises Jack while attending to her clients, mostly prostitutes. His clock-heart, she warns him repeatedly, "is not robust enough to endure the torment of love." Guess what? The first time they leave the house, ten-year-old Jack is smitten by the sight of a street entertainer, an Andalusian singer as diminutive as himself, and his heart starts whirring dangerously. At school, he learns that Miss Acacia has left town; his informant, a bully named Joe, tells him to back off; Joe has first dibs on the little singer. The boys fight; Joe loses an eye; cops arrive. Jack escapes to Paris, where magician-clockmaker Georges Melies tells him to forget the clockwork and follow his real heart. It's good advice; but the clockwork keeps intruding in this novel lamentably short on both heart and characterization. Jack tracks down Miss Acacia in Granada and finds his love reciprocated. Here the story disintegrates as Joe reappears and Jack succumbs irrationally to jealousy and self-hatred, trying to rip out his clock. In noted contrast to L. Frank Baum, who fused fantasy and logic in his simple, dignified portrait of another fellow with a heart problem in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Malzieu undermines both as he flails around. Maybe this strained conceitworked as a concept album for the author's rock band, Dionysos (La mecanique du cœur, 2007), or director Luc Besson will do better with the projected animated film version. "I'm a human gimmick," confesses Jack, "who wishes he could ditch the special effects." The author should have ditched them too.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307472137
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/29/2011
  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 499,461
  • Product dimensions: 5.22 (w) x 8.06 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Mathias Malzieu is the lead singer of the French band Dionysos. The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is the basis for an album that Malzieu wrote, and he is codirector of an animated feature-film adaptation optioned by Luc Besson. This is his third novel and the first to be translated into English. Born in 1974 near Montpelier, Malzieu now lives in Paris.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

In which Little Jack is born on the coldest day on earth and miraculously resuscitated It’s snowing over Edinburgh on this 16th day of April, 1874. An eerie, freezing cold gridlocks the city. Old people wonder whether this might be the coldest day on earth. The sun seems to have disappeared for good. There’s a biting wind, snowflakes lighter than air. WHITE! WHITE! WHITE! A muffled explosion. This is all we can see. Houses resemble steam engines, as the gray smoke exhaled by their chimneys sparkles in the steel sky.

Edinburgh and its steep streets are being transformed. Fountains metamorphose, one by one, into bouquets of ice. The old river, usually so serious, is disguised as an icing sugar lake that stretches all the way to the sea. The din of the surf rings out like the sound of windows smashing. Miraculously, the hoarfrost stitches sequins on to cats’ bodies. The trees stretch their arms, like fat fairies in white nightshirts yawning at the moon, as they watch the carriages sliding over the cobblestone ice rink. It is so cold that birds freeze in midflight before crashing to the ground. The noise as they drop out of the sky is uncannily soft for a corpse.

This is the coldest day on earth. And I’m getting ready to be born.

The scene is an old house perched on top of the highest hill in Edinburgh, Arthur’s Seat; that King’s remains are supposed to lie at the top of this sleeping volcano set in blue quartz. The roof of the house is ingeniously pitched and pointy. The chimney, shaped like a butcher’s knife, underscores the stars. The moon sharpens its quarters here. There’s nobody around, just trees.

Inside, everything is made of wood, as if the house had been carved from an enormous pine tree. It’s like walking into a log cabin: ruggedly exposed beams, tiny windows rescued from the train scrapyard, and a low table hewn from a single stump. Woollen cushions stuffed with dead leaves complete the nestlike atmosphere. Numerous clandestine births are carried out in this house.

Here lives strange Dr. Madeleine, the midwife—otherwise known as “that mad-wife” by the city’s residents—who is on the pretty side for an old lady. She still has a glint in her eye, but her smile is just a twitch, betraying a loose connection in her facial wiring.

Dr. Madeleine brings into the world the children of prostitutes and abandoned women, who are too young or too unfaithful to give birth the conventional way. As well as helping with new life, Dr. Madeleine loves mending people. She specializes in the mechanical prosthetic, the glass eye, the wooden leg . . . There’s nothing you won’t find in her workshop.

As this nineteenth century draws to a close, it takes scarcely more to be suspected of witchcraft. In town, people say that Madeleine kills newborns to model slaves from ectoplasm, and that she sleeps with all sorts of birds to conceive monsters.

During her long labor, my mother watches distractedly as snowflakes and birds silently smash their faces against the window. She’s very young, like a child playing at being pregnant. Her mood is gloomy; she knows she won’t keep me. She can scarcely bring herself to look down at her belly, which is ready to burst. As I threaten to arrive, her eyelids close without tensing. Her skin merges with the sheets: as if the bed is sucking her up, as if she’s melting.

She was already weeping on the climb up the hill to get here. Her frozen tears bounced off the ground, like beads from a broken necklace. As she walked, a carpet of glittering ball bearings sprang up under her feet. She began to skate, then found she couldn’t stop. The cadence of her steps became too quick. Her heels got caught, her ankles lurched and she went sprawling. Inside her, I made a noise like a broken piggybank.

Dr. Madeleine is my first sighting. Her fingers grab my olive-shaped skull—a miniature rugby ball—and then we snuggle up peacefully.

My mother prefers to look away. In any case, her eyelids no longer want to function. “Open your eyes! Look at this miniature snowflake you’ve made!”

Madeleine says I look like a white bird with big feet. My mother replies that if she’s not looking at me, then the last thing she wants is a description.

“I don’t want to see, and I don’t want to know!”

But the doctor seems preoccupied. She keeps palpating my tiny torso. The smile disappears from her face.

“His heart is very hard. I think it’s frozen.”

“Mine too. There’s no need to make a fuss.”

“But his heart really is frozen!”

She shakes me from top to bottom, and I make the same noise as someone rummaging in a toolbox.

Dr. Madeleine busies herself in front of her worktop. My mother waits, sitting on her bed. She’s trembling now and, this time, it has nothing to do with the cold. She’s like a porcelain doll that escaped from the toy shop.

Outside, the snow is falling more thickly. Silver ivy climbs over the rooftops. Translucent roses bend toward windows, lighting up the streets. Cats become gargoyles, their claws stuck in the gutter.

Fish are pulling faces in the river, frozen midswim. The whole city is in the clutches of a glassblower, who exhales an ear-biting cold. In a matter of seconds, the few brave people who dare to head outside are paralyzed; you’d think some deity had just taken their photograph. Carried along by the momentum of their own scurrying, some start gliding to the rhythm of a final dance. They almost look handsome, each assuming his or her own style, twisted angels with their scarves sticking up in the sky, music-box danc?ers at the close of their performance, slowing down to the bars of their very last breath.

Everywhere, passers-by already frozen—or on their way to freezing—impale themselves on the rose garden of fountains. Only the clocks continue to make the heart of the city beat, as if none of this were out of the ordinary.

They warned me not to climb to the top of Arthur’s Seat. Everyone said the old lady was mad
, thinks my mother. The poor girl looks like she’s dying of cold. If the doctor manages to mend my own heart, I reckon she’ll have an even bigger job with my mother’s . . . Here I am, lying stark naked, waiting on the workbench next to the worktop, my chest clamped in a metal vise. And I’m starting to feel seriously cold.

An ancient black cat, with a servile manner, is perched on a kitchen table. The doctor has made him a pair of glasses. Green frames to match his eyes—stylish. Nonchalantly, he watches the scene, all he’s missing is a financial newspaper and a cigar.

Dr. Madeleine starts scouring the shelf of windup clocks. She removes a number of different models: severe-looking angular ones, round ones, wooden ones and metal ones, showing off to the tips of their clock hands. With one ear she listens to my defective heart, with the other to the tick-tocks of the clocks. She scrunches her eyes, apparently unsatisfied. She’s like one of those dreadful old ladies who takes a quarter of an hour to choose a tomato at the market. All of a sudden, her face lights up. “This one!” she shrieks, stroking the gears of an old cuckoo clock.

The clock measures approximately four centimeters by eight, and is made entirely from wood with the exception of its mechanical parts, dial and handles. The finish is rather rustic, “sturdy,” thinks the doctor out loud. The cuckoo, tall as my little finger bone, is red with black eyes. Its beak, fixed open, gives it the air of a dead bird.

“You’ll have a good heart with this clock! And it’ll be an excellent match for your birdlike head,” Dr. Madeleine says to me.

I’m not so keen on this bird business. That said, she is trying to save my life, so I don’t quibble.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2010

    Imaginative Concept

    I liked the concept of this story, the imagery and the way the mechanics of a cuckoo clock heart interplayed with human emotion. It made me think of Edward Scissorhands all over again. In the end, however, the story fell flat. It seemed there could have been so much more to it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 19, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    We're all a little unique.

    This book is filled with an immersive adventure of love that is sought after, even at the cost of death. This tale is captivating to the last period. I would strongly recommend "The Boy With The Cuckoo-Clock Heart" to anyone who has ever been seen as an outcast or has ever felt strange and different.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted July 2, 2010

    Once again, Jim Dale does not disappoint!

    This book starts out as a magical fairy tale with a childless witch doctor saving the life of a new born baby by installing a cuckoo clock to keep his heart going. The charming and ecentric cast of characters protect Jack as he grows, with the doctor warning him of the dire consequences of falling in love. Naturally, Jack ignores her warnings and from there the tale gets much darker and more sinister.

    I loved the writing style of Boy With a Cuckoo-Clock Heart. The flowery, imaginative descriptions worked well in this type of story, really transporting you into another world. Unfortunately the plot seemed to trail off towards the end and I lost the feeling of direction. The darkness and violence all seemed a bit pointless. In the end it was an entertaining book to listen to, but not as amazing as the beginning had me hoping for.

    I listened to the audio version of Boy With a Cuckoo-Clock Heart and that is what really made the book for me. It is read by Jim Dale.......Jim Dale! What a great narrator! He has all the accents and nuances down. As soon as he starts talking you are in the heart of the story, smack in the middle of Edinburgh, Paris, or Andalusia, hearing the tick-tock of Jack's heart. Once again, Jim Dale does not disappoint!

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  • Posted April 24, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Could Have Been Better

    I agree almost 100% with the 'Imaginative Concept' review. This book had a lot of potential and the concept sounded awesome. However, the story fell flat. I don't know if it translated poorly or what, but something was off about it. I enjoyed reading it though. It took about 4 hours to read leisurely and it held my attention. It is a pretty book.

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  • Posted February 22, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    fans will enjoy this fine fantasy as Mathias Malzieu and Sarah Ardizzone provide a warm story of love.

    In 1874 in Edinburgh, newborn Jack is near death from a frozen heart when his teenage mother abandons him. Midwife Dr. Madeleine attaches a cuckoo clock to his heart to get it started. Her desperate effort saves Jack's life and she raises him as her son while tending to the needs of her prostitute clients.

    However as he grows up, Madeleine constantly reminds him to never fall in love as his heart will fail him. When Jack sees Miss Acacia, a street singer who is as tiny as he is, he falls in love. This stimulates his heart to a point where if it does not ease off it will kill him. At school, Joe warns Jack to back away from Miss Acacia as she is his. They brawl until Joe loses an eye forcing Jack to flee to Paris. There he meets magician-clockmaker Georges Melies who tells him to ignore his man-made heart-clock and use his God-made heart to find his Miss Acacia.

    With a nod to Oz, The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is a wonderful whimsical historical fantasy with an underlying message of a person must follow their heart which leads to the road to happiness. The story line is fast-paced though a late spin involving the return of Joe detracts from the lyrical romantic tale. Still fans will enjoy this fine fantasy as Mathias Malzieu and Sarah Ardizzone provide a warm story of love.

    Harriet Klausner

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 29, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted March 16, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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