By Frances Hardinge
Published by Macmillan
Author Frances Hardinge expertly piles on the feeling of unease and tension in the opening chapters of her chillingly dark new novel, Cuckoo Song. When 11-year-old Triss Crescent wakes up in the river, she knows something is wrong.
She manages to drag herself out of the water, but she can't explain to her parents how she fell in: one minute she was safe on the river bank, the next she was floundering in its current.
Triss' parents think she has a fever and has been sleepwalking because the accident happened in the middle of the night. But even after a good sleep and lots of tender loving care, Triss is still not back to her normal self. Something weird has happened. She is insatiably hungry all the time, and she is starting to hear whispering voices in her head.
To make things worse, Triss' younger sister, Pen, starts behaving very oddly towards her; she seems to be afraid to come near Triss, and is openly nasty to her and her parents. Triss' parents have no idea what has happened to her, or why she and her sister no longer get on.
After the family returns home to the small town of Ellchester, the situation between the sisters gets worse. Triss is not the person she was before the holiday accident. So what really happened that night she fell into river?
Hardinge offers many questions and twists and turns for the reader before clues slowly begin to emerge.
It is strange that the author has made Triss and Pen so young because their actions, right from the start, are far more mature than their ages and background suggest. Some perceptive readers may think that the two sisters seem far too independent and bold for typical nine- and 11-year-olds brought up in a middle-class English family just after the first world war.
Yet Triss is a believable and likeable protagonist. As the story grows more mysterious she remains a character that all teenage readers will be able to sympathise with.
The truth about what happened to her is very dark and disturbing, and will take readers to places they will not have expected. A cuckoo is a bird that takes over the nests of other birds; so the book's title offers a strong clue about a hidden past.
The book is recommended for everyone who enjoys a dark fantasy and Hardinge, to her credit, wraps things up very convincingly, with no loose ends left for a sequel. An unusual, but most welcome, change!
John Millen can be contacted at MillenBookshelf@aol.com