Sunday 24 September 2023

 Cuckoo in The Nest:   Fran Hill.     

Narrated by fourteen-year-old Jackie, Cuckoo in the Nest is the story of Jackie, an aspiring poet who is wiser beyond her years. She’s had to be since her mum died and her father slid into alcoholism alternating between violence and helplessness. Jackie has kept the pair of them going but when the authorities eventually step in, she is fostered by Nick and Bridget Wall whose daughter Amanda does not welcome the newcomer.

 Set in Britain’s heatwave summer of 1976, there are plenty of cultural references including music for those of us who remember this era, and setting the scene for those who don’t. (Gammon slices with pineapple sauce, anyone? Or a drive in a mustard-coloured Ford Escort?)

As Jackie negotiates her new situation, she is aware that her foster parents also have to find their way with the arrangement as much as she does herself. Amanda does too but without any consideration towards Jackie or, indeed, her parents.

Jackie gets through the days guarding her emotions carefully, but we see small snippets of her pain and vulnerability – always understated but saying so much. ‘It was about finding Carolines or perhaps Janes or Marions with my dad and wearing my mother’s silk dressing gown.’   

As the story unfolds, we see that Bridget is hanging onto her middle-class aspirations by her fingernails. How does she negotiate the minefield of a resentful teenager and the proverbial cuckoo in the nest when things go awry?

Jackie narrates her story with sardonic humour although occasionally I found this a little too adult for even a bright and precocious fourteen-year-old. However, it didn’t mar my enjoyment of reading.

This story is fiction but Cuckoo in The Nest is informed by the author’s own experience of living with a foster family, giving it authenticity and allowing the reader insights into the experiences of children in the care system and perhaps breaking down preconceived ideas about children in care.