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Reading ‘Cuckoo Song’ in Mogadishu

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(Photo of Hargeisa at night, as I lost my phone with all my April / early May photos on it. Booo.)

The book: Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge

The place: Mogadishu


Back in December 2004, well before I had even dreamed of e-readers, I bought Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty at Heathrow Airport, to take with me on holiday to Antigua. I read the latter (and disliked it; I then reread it several years later and completely changed my view, to the extent that I became quite smug about my own humility) but not the former, all half a ton of which I lugged from the UK to the US to Antigua and back again, only to read it in the comfort of my own home a few months later. I have a fairly woo-woo idea that books come to us in their own time, and I certainly got a lot more out of JS&MN when I did read it, at a time of quite seismic life changes (relationship ending, leaving my job and my house and my country to go and live in Sudan for the first time): there’s one line in particular, towards the end of the book, that was so resonant for me that, distressingly, when I met Susanna Clarke at the Cambridge Book Fair shortly afterwards, and was importuning her to sign a scrap of paper from my Arabic notebook, I actually teared up when telling her how much the book had meant to me. Horreur.

JS&MN is not Cuckoo Song and Susanna Clarke is not Frances Hardinge (if she were, she’d be a damn sight more prolific, she muttered disconsolately), but I mention all of this is because Cuckoo Song is hands down the best book about faerie I’ve read outside of JS&MN, and in fact I’ve found myself assuming the two books share the same universe (indeed, in my head, Significant Character from JS&MN is the same as Significant Character from Cuckoo Song; apologies for spoiler-averse coyness but if you’ve read the books perhaps you will know what I mean). The merciless amorality and blasted humour of faerie as depicted in Cuckoo Song is a bold choice for what claims to be a children’s book, but I guess that children are tougher that adults tend to assume, and certainly more comfortable with cruelty.

(Other books that I am convinced occupy the same universe: The Sheltering Sky and Revolutionary Road, the former being an alternate future of the latter, if the protagonists had gone through with their plans to travel.)

While I am very glad that Frances Hardinge has written so many books (this is the first of hers I’ve read), why can’t Susanna Clarke do likewise? Wikipedia claims that she’s working on a jump sequel to JS&MN, but I’m not sure I have the heart to believe it, given the emotional rollercoaster I have been going through for the past five years over rumours of A Suitable Girl. (It is a fairly slow and mild emotional rollercoaster, admittedly.)


Mogadishu again, or still. Hard to tell whether security is getting worse, or whether it’s just a blip. Meanwhile, however, I have had the chance to eat barbecued shark for the first time in my life, so there are always positives.


Written by Jess

April 29, 2015 at 3:25 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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