Author: Keren David
Publisher: Little, Brown/Atom
Publication date: 4 August 2016
Series or standalone?: Standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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Jake Benn is a teenage actor. Or at least he was.
Made famous as a familiar face in the nation’s most popular soap opera, Jake’s character went upstairs to his bedroom six months ago and hasn’t been seen on-screen since.
Now everything is crumbling around him: his mother reveals they’ve spent all his money, his father is charging unannounced into auditions, he can’t get a straight answer from his agent, no-one can get a straight answer from Market Square’s producers, and tensions are through the roof. At breaking point, he seeks escape at friends’ houses and, more and more often, on their sofas each night, but couch-surfing is a lot less glamourous when you’ve got nowhere else to go. As his life goes from bad to worse, Jake starts to feel like a cuckoo in every nest.
From the acclaimed author of When I Was Joe and This Is Not a Love Story, Cuckoo is a novel about what happens when teenagers fall through the cracks, and finding unlikely solace when home is the least welcoming place of all.
I loved Keren David’s Salvage – the warm, engaging, dramatic tale of Aidan and Cass, a brother and sister separated by adoption and facing their own struggles at a time when their lives come twining back together – so of course I had high expectations for her latest novel. Her books are all about being lost and being found in some way, and in that sense Cuckoo is no different – though it is, simultaneously, very different. While she retains a trademark incisive approach to tough themes and hefty storylines, this book’s format is her most unusual yet.
Smart and unflinching, Cuckoo is written as transcripts from a web series, with chapters as episodes complete with comments and only minimal scene description. It may be a divisive technique, but if you stick with it there’s plenty to get your teeth into, from acting insights to social issues to the appearance of unexpected allies. For fans of Alice Oseman’s podcast-riddled Radio Silence or Claire Hennessy’s unusually-told Nothing Tastes as Good, this is an intriguing read.
Keren David sets herself quite the challenge in conjuring Jake’s story without the tools usually at an author’s disposal. Plot and character details have to be slipped into a narrative where almost all of the story is told to camera. It reads quickly and holds the reader’s attention. It presents the audience with a wide range of issues and challenges the audience to keep up with dialogue devoid of tags. It manages to create a distinct voice for at least some of its many characters and there’s frankly brilliant use of Shakespeare.
Lack of description and the general implausibility of the storyline (for example that people would agree to star in some twisted recreation of recent events in the protagonist’s life), however, make for a read which is both difficult to visualise and to invest in. Keren David attempts to ground the book with gritty realities, such as homelessness and the unreliability of work as an actor, but a bizarre mix of Jake’s unwillingness to actually explain what’s happening to him to anyone he knows and the unrealistic reactions of people around him leave the reader unsure whether this book is surreal or too real. The book is so full of issues which can’t be examined fully through the medium of dialogue alone that many are simply dropped in or not explored at all. The ending is rushed and there aren’t many characters to actually like, though the story is page-turning.
Perhaps this experiment in style has come from David’s role in turning Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery into a musical, but if Cuckoo resembles any of her previous books, it’s When I Was Joe. It’s hard-hitting, direct and leaves you wondering how much of the real story you’ve seen. Jake has a tinge of the unreliable narrator, but then so too do the characters who pepper the pages around him. An eclectic cast sees Jake meet many characters who wouldn’t be seen in the high-school-prom-dates-and-the-occasional-supernatural-event side of teen fiction. This book takes its pick of characters who fall through the cracks, and it’s particularly well done in the case of Marguerite Morgan, an elderly lady whose infirmities hide an illustrious past in acting and directing and who leaves even teenage characters in the dust when it comes to the sharp tongue stakes.
Cuckoo is a strange book. It’s not an easy read structurally or thematically, and it’s not exactly light-hearted, though there are elements of hope. It’s a book that will depend very much on the individual: for some, the fact that there’s no romance will appeal, while for others, the off-kilter style won’t provide enough detail to make it enjoyable. For others still, thinly-disguised parodies and homages – Market Square is Eastenders, Dame Edie Lombard evokes Dames Judi Dench and Helen Mirren – will pique interest. For me however the novel lacked the narrative warmth and generosity which makes good contemporary YA such a fan favourite.
Serious, bold and a bit perplexing, Cuckoo asks a lot of its readers. It’s unusual format doesn’t work seamlessly, but it’s sure to stand out in UKYA this year. A tough but page-turning read.