If you were here last November then you may recall my spectacular failing of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a fun and somewhat tongue-in-cheek challenge to complete 50,000 words of a new novel in just 30 days. And round about the last week of October, out they came: the NaNoWriMo Naysayers and their Smug Blog Posts of Doom. ‘A novel in 30 days?’ these “Real” Writers said with their noses in the air. ‘Please. It won’t be fit for toilet paper.’ Others said, ‘I write novels for a living, and it takes me the whole year. I resent fair-weather writers saying it can be done in a month’ and ‘Write 1,700 words a day for the month of November? I do that every day of the year, darling. Every damn day.’ And then there were the agents and editors groaning aloud at the thought of all the unsolicited NaNo manuscripts that were sure to come streaming through their doors on December 1, ink still wet and paper warm. (They’re all entirely missing the point of NaNoWriMo, but how they are is another topic for another post.) I think NaNo is great fun and a great idea, and as such I’m always looking for tangible evidence that taking part is worthwhile.
Enter Julia Crouch, who wrote the first draft of her debut novel, Cuckoo, during NaNoWriMo 2008. A year of edits followed but she can now look forward to its publication on March 3, and you can look forward to reading it – because it’s great.
“Polly is Rose’s oldest friend. So when she calls with the news that her husband has died, Rose doesn’t think twice about inviting her to stay. She’d do anything for Polly; it’s always been that way. Polly has never been one to conform – it’s one of the qualities that Rose most admires in her – and from the moment she and her two boys arrive on Rose’s doorstep, it’s obvious she’s not the typical grieving widow. But the longer Polly stays, the more Rose wonders how well she really knows her. She can’t help wondering, too, whether her presence has anything to do with Rose’s growing sense that she’s losing her hold on her own family and home. As Rose’s meticulously constructed world is picked apart at the seams, one thing becomes clear: once Polly’s in, it’s very hard to get her out again.”
Well, what a little roller-coaster ride this book is. Had I wrote this review after reading only the first third of it, I would be saying that it was a competent debut that kept me turning the pages, but wasn’t anything hugely original. Had I wrote it mid-way through, I would be saying that it was creepy, atmospheric and dark, but surely headed towards an unsurprising conclusion. But I couldn’t have wrote it anywhere between then and the end, because I was totally engrossed. I couldn’t put it down – not even for tea-making. (And that’s saying something, let me tell you.) And I was about to be completely surprised.
Cuckoo is a deceptively complex story and as it unfolds, the reader’s relationship with the characters becomes one of complexity too, feelings and impressions ever churning and changing; I felt like I was losing my grip on who I thought they were just as they were losing their grip on the same thing. And with almost the entire novel taking place in and around the country house that Rose and her husband Gareth own, the sense of claustrophobia – and around it, isolation – is palpable.
When I first read Cuckoo’s synopsis, I thought of the movie Single White Female, but Cuckoo is not about a crazy lady who came to stay. This book, in my opinion, is an exploration of the darkest corners of female friendship. We all had that friend at school whom we referred to as one of our ‘best’ but whose presence always left us feeling worse, never better, usually through campaigns of subtle emotional warfare and sneaky verbal ‘digs’.
What would life be like if we were still friends with this person, if we had carried her with us into adulthood? What if what she wanted to prove wasn’t that she was better at English or that her spotty boyfriend was better than mine, but that she had the better husband, the better kids, the better life? What if her insecurities threatened not just our mood but our everything? With such high stakes, would sweetly telling our mother that her bedroom was thoroughly cleaned every day when she knew that, first of all, mine wasn’t and, second of all, neither was hers, turn into something far more dark and sinister?
Where Cuckoo really excels is in its closing act, which manages to first feel like a shock and then afterwards inevitable: the mark, in my opinion, of a damn good ending. It may have felt like a slow burn to begin with, but Cuckoo was just biding its time, creeping up on me like a stranger in the night.
Unsettling, mysterious and dark, Cuckoo is a great debut and I’m really looking forward to more from Julia Crouch.
And rest assured, I’ll be reminding you all of this come the last week of October.
And I want that pink suitcase.
Thanks to Headline for my copy.