What if falling in love cost you your life? Would you be able to resist?
The story opens in Edinburgh, in the late 1800s, during the greatest freeze the city has known. In this introduction, the cold and snow almost become a character on their own. You meet the protagonist, Jack, as a frail infant abandoned by his mother to the idiosyncratic and brilliant Dr. Madeleine.
To save his life, Madeleine grafts a cuckoo clock to his heart, but this alteration requires rules that cannot be broken:
“FIRSTLY: DON’T TOUCH THE HANDS OF YOUR CUCKOO-CLOCK HEART. SECONDLY: MASTER YOUR ANGER. THIRDLY: NEVER EVER FALL IN LOVE. FOR IF YOU DO, THE HOUR HAND WILL POKE THROUGH YOUR SKIN, YOUR BONES WILL SHATTER, AND YOUR HEART WILL BREAK ONCE MORE.”
Jack is tortured by the continual presence of his clock heart, which ticks and whirrs and cuckoos at the least convenient moment. He is bullied and mocked at school and it embarrasses him in public.
The cast of characters that surrounds Jack as he grows is colorful and eclectic, a peg-leg prostitute and a Scotsman with a musical spine, all overseen by the protective and loving Dr. Madeleine, who has adopted her boy with the cuckoo clock heart.
The heart of the story is Jack’s doomed love for the coquettish, mercurial and short-sighted Miss Acacia, a street singer turned cabaret performer. For Jack, the perils of love are very real and shape all of his choices throughout the book. It’s not only love he has to control, but jealousy and anger ground through the gears of love, as his rival Big Joe vies for the hand of Miss Acacia.
Jack later teams up with the famous film pioneer and illusionist Géorges Melies, who becomes enamored of his condition and its ramifications. The theme of illusions figures strongly, for nothing is quite as it seems in this little fable.
Malzieu seamlessly integrates the elements of steampunk with literary fiction, allowing this novella to transcend the usually cursed designation of “genre fiction”. It should, for this is really literary steampunk and you need neither to be really very literary or steampunk to enjoy it.
Melzieu’s prose has a dreamy, cinematic elegance, distinctly European. The pacing ticks along steadily – it is a quick read at 172 pages – and the action winds tighter and tighter until you cannot wait any longer for the denouement. The vivid characters stay with you long after you close this slim volume. There is a twist at the end, which cuts sharp as the second hand of a clock.
The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart has already been lauded as an adult fairytale, but it seems even more than that. The story concerns the lies we tell ourselves and others in our pursuit of love and our fear of love’s loss. It’s a magical journey that ends too soon, but makes the re-reading all too pleasurable.
Mathias Melzieu is also known as the lead singer of the French band, Dionysos. I have included the peculiarly wonderful book trailer, set to the music of Dionysos. The book is currently in production to become a full-length animated film, La Mécanique du Coeur, directed by the author and Stéphane Berla. In short, Malzieu proves steampunk offers stories with a beating heart.