Mathias Malzieu’s “The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart”

The cover of “The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart” makes the book seem like a light read, maybe for young adults who can empathize with children, but this book is an adult’s tale in disguise. The story is about a boy, Jack, born from a young mother and raised by the ingenious midwife Dr. Madeline who helps him to live by placing a cuckoo-clock in his chest which beats his heart for him. As Jack grows, he doesn’t understand why he is so different and shunned while he makes friends with a musical beggar and kind prostitutes. Jack’s heart clangs and ticks as the clock hands point out of his chest, often constricting his breathing when he is stressed or excited. Dr. Madeleine is forced to warn Jack to never love, for his fragile heart would not be able to take the strain.

Jack’s story truly begins when he is on the streets with Dr. Madeleine and hears a young girl singing so beautifully. She is full of fire and vanity as she stumbles alongside her mother, and Jack cannot help himself but joining in her song and falling madly in love with her at that very moment. His heart seems to crush him with its longing. From then on, Jack’s obsession is finding the little singer, Miss Acacia, facing difficulties in school when he asks about her. Finally, when his cuckoo-clock gears poke another boy’s eye out in a fight, Jack runs away to Spain to find his little singer. Through friendship with a lovesick magician and a job at the circus, Jack finds his singer, loves her and knows of the true weight of a heart.

The story is rife with adult themes. Jack struggles with newfound desire and an obsession with Miss Acacia that governs his every move. He works so hard to gain her love, which she grudgingly gives and takes. Jack becomes a man more ridiculed than understood, ultimately straining his heart to the point of no return in his fight for Miss Acacia against Joe, the boy whose eye he ruined back in his quest.

It is a beautifully sad story of growth, passion and betrayal. The writing is so poetic, especially as it comes from a songwriter, that the heart just aches when Jack’s poor ticking one tries to leap out of his chest. You are urging him on the entire time, sometimes knowing the mistakes he must be making and sometimes never expecting his level of determination when others might have given up. Even when Miss Acacia turns away from him, his desperation to win her back is a feeling that seems all too familiar and so heartbreaking in its inevitable conclusion.

This book is available at Penfield Library on the third floor under the call number PQ2713.A374 M4313.