First the broken heart, then love, in this reverse-sequence fantasy about a medical freak, French musician/novelist Malzieu’s first U.S. publication.
On the coldest day on earth, Little Jack is born with a heart frozen solid. His teenage mother disappears for good; Jack owes his survival to resourceful midwife Dr. Madeleine, who attaches a cuckoo clock to his heart to get it beating. This happens in Edinburgh on April 16, 1874. Good-hearted Madeleine raises Jack while attending to her clients, mostly prostitutes. His clock-heart, she warns him repeatedly, “is not robust enough to endure the torment of love.” Guess what? The first time they leave the house, ten-year-old Jack is smitten by the sight of a street entertainer, an Andalusian singer as diminutive as himself, and his heart starts whirring dangerously. At school, he learns that Miss Acacia has left town; his informant, a bully named Joe, tells him to back off; Joe has first dibs on the little singer. The boys fight; Joe loses an eye; cops arrive. Jack escapes to Paris, where magician-clockmaker Georges Méliès tells him to forget the clockwork and follow his real heart. It’s good advice; but the clockwork keeps intruding in this novel lamentably short on both heart and characterization. Jack tracks down Miss Acacia in Granada and finds his love reciprocated. Here the story disintegrates as Joe reappears and Jack succumbs irrationally to jealousy and self-hatred, trying to rip out his clock. In noted contrast to L. Frank Baum, who fused fantasy and logic in his simple, dignified portrait of another fellow with a heart problem in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Malzieu undermines both as he flails around. Maybe this strained conceit worked as a concept album for the author’s rock band, Dionysos (La mécanique du cœur, 2007), or director Luc Besson will do better with the projected animated film version.
“I’m a human gimmick,” confesses Jack, “who wishes he could ditch the special effects.” The author should have ditched them too.