Author: Mathias Malzieu (wikipedia)
Translator: Sarah Ardizzone (wikipedia)
UK Publisher: Vintage
Genre: Literary fiction, steampunk(-ish)
Edinburgh, 1874. On the coldest night the world has ever seen, Little Jack is born with a frozen heart and immediately undergoes a life-saving operation. But Dr Madeleine is no conventional medic and surgically implants a cuckoo-clock into his chest. Little Jack grows up different to other children: every day begins with a daily wind-up. At school he is bullied for his ‘ticking’, but Dr Madeleine reminds him he must resist strong emotion: anger is far too dangerous for his cuckoo-clock heart. So when the beautiful young street-singer, Miss Acacia, appears – pursued by Joe, the school bully – Jack is in danger of more than just falling in love… he is putting his life on the line.
My brother has this maddening ability to always buy really unusual but amazing Christmas presents. This book was one of them, he bought it for me about ten years ago, and it was quite a magical discovery. I recalled it being one of those unusual, slightly fantastic, and romantic books. When I found it during a big tidy of my bookshelves the other week, I looked forward to seeing if it lived up to my memories.
The first thing which startled me about was how strangely sexual the book was from the very beginning. There’s a magical description of the coldest day on Earth, where everything freezes. People freeze walking the streets, fountains freeze mid-spray, tears freeze as they drop to the ground. It’s magical, and descriptive, and a little bit dark. Jack narrates the whole story, and from the instant of his birth he’s talking sexually about the breasts of the woman who delivers him. His heart is frozen, and she fits a cuckoo-clock into his chest to help it keep beating, but even as she leans over him to do so he only cares what her boobs look like.
I’m not sure if this is because it’s a French book (although it begins in Edinburgh and spends the bulk of time in Andalusia), or whether this is uniquely the voice of the author, but the book continues in this tone. There are two prostitutes who visit the doctor’s house where he lives, and they teach him new words. Like Cunnilingus, which is the name he gives his hamster.
At age ten he goes into town and first sees Miss Acacia, the girl who drives his motivation for the rest of the book. Again, the description is strangely sexual for such a young age, and he also keeps talking about her breasts. We’re given to understand she is the same age as him, so the presence of any breasts is a little unlikely, but also the discussion of them makes me uncomfortable and it felt very unnecessary. He becomes obsessed with Acacia, who he only ever refers to as Miss Acacia, and finding her again. Meanwhile Dr. Madeleine tells Jack not to fall in love, puts up a sign in his room telling him that love will kill him, sings him to sleep with songs about love being dangerous.
I was most of the way through my re-read before I realised what this book was really about, in perhaps a way I hadn’t the first time I read it. It’s a story about obsession and the way it can drive you regardless of the truth. Jack wants Acacia entirely based on his own fantasies and desires, regardless of anything she might want, or the realities which may face him. Madeleine wants to keep Jack safe by her side, to be the child she was never able to carry herself, regardless of what is healthy or natural. There are cameos from other historical figures with obsessive traits too – Jack the Ripper and Georges Méliès. The two don’t sit entirely comfortably together. Jack the Ripper seems like the oddest and most incongruous cameo, and feels very jarring for how little he impacts the plot, to be featured so significantly.
Meanwhile Méliès accompanies Jack on his adventures, acting as both guide and documentarian. But his obsessive fixation on his dreams is likened to Jack’s in a way that seemed disingenuous. If you are unaware of Méliès, he is deemed one of the fathers of cinema, and appears as a character in the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and its film adaptation Hugo. To have him set alongside Jack’s obsession diminishes both Méliès’ very real accomplishments, and Jack’s very fictional, unhealthy behaviour.
Jack isn’t a nice person. He’s naive to begin with, but he’s uncomfortably oversexed, and begins a sexual relationship when he is at most fifteen. The book starts with his birth, but then essentially covers the years between ten and twenty at the oldest estimate. But he talks about Acacia almost exclusively through her physicality. She’s got other characteristics, they’re shown glancingly, but we never get to learn much about her outside of her encounters with Jack, and he’s focused entirely on one thing.
It’s a dark book and an uncomfortable book. It’s packaged like a children’s book, but it definitely isn’t that, despite the protagonist aging through it. It could be pitched as a coming-of-age novel, I suppose, but it never feels like Jack really learns anything from his experiences. He talks about having learned, but then continues his behaviour. It’s unclear what the moral of the story is, if there’s even supposed to be one at all, and the ending seems abrupt after the rest of the narrative.
It was a wonderful present to get ten years ago, and I remember it seeming magical then. Re-reading it now, with a greater understanding and knowledge of books and narrative, I’m not sure it’s a book for me any more. I’m glad I took the time to re-read it, and properly acknowledge the place it took on my shelf, but now I think I’ll be even more glad of the space it’s left for a book which suits me now.
- A short book written in a literary style, which follows a young boy on his obsessive journey to find a girl he met as a child.
- It’s sexual in a way I don’t recall noticing when I first read it years ago, but which now seems very overt and made me uncomfortable, particularly given the young age of the protagonists.
- It could be easily be a moralistic story about the consequences of obsession, but it isn’t clear in its resolution. It’s not obvious what Jack learns from his journey, and he just seems like an increasingly less sympathetic narrator as the book progresses.
Rating: 2/5 – I still think fondly of this book because it was a gift from my brother, and I remember how I felt when I first read it, but I think it’s unlikely it will ever be a book I read again.