The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter
What I said then:
All I really know about her is that many many people have insisted that I read her. I hope they know me well.
What I say now:All those people, they know me ... okay.
Melanie, fifteen years old, wakes up in the middle of the night while her parents are on an overseas trip, having left her and her siblings in the care of a nanny. She sneaks into her parents' bedroom, takes out her mother's wedding dress, puts it on, goes out into the moonlit garden and promptly locks herself out of the house. She takes the dress off and, naked, climbs a tree to her second storey window, dragging the dress behind her. When she finally forces her way back inside, the dress is torn to shreds. At that moment, on the other side of the world, her parents die in a plane crash.
Thus runs the first chapter of The Magic Toyshop, and it's an incredible piece of writing. Melanie's disordered thinking as she decides to try the dress on, as though she's trying on the idea of growing into a woman, is rendered with a panache that belies its subtlety. And when Melanie wanders the night-time house, and goes out into the garden, Carter's writing makes everything alive in a way that's nearly impossible to describe. She doesn't write what the stairs, or the lawn, or the nanny's cat look like; she writes what they think. Everything, even inanimate objects, seem to have their own opinions, their own agenda. Simply, there is magic in the air, animating everything. It's a really wonderful chapter, and an amazing start to a book. Unfortunately ...
After her parents' deaths, Melanie, along with her younger brother Jonathan and baby sister Victoria, are sent to live with their uncle and his family in London. Uncle Phillip owns a bizarre toyshop, and makes all his products himself in the basement, but the toys and puppets he crafts are the only thing he loves: he is a cold despot over his household. His Irish wife, Aunt Margaret, was struck dumb on her wedding day, and has never said a word since. Her brothers Francie, a kind man who plays the fiddle, and Finn, a scruffy vagabond with an imp's eyes and roving hands, live with them as well.
And the bulk of the novel consists of Melanie's impressions of her new situation and Finn's attempts to seduce her, which swing from indifferent to passionately sincere. But after we reached the toyshop, it was difficult to really care about anything. Every character but Melanie felt crudely drawn; the curious vividness which animated everything in the first chapter dies away (even though the puppets, Halloween masks and wooden toys that stock the shop should have been easy to bring to life).
The characters don't seem to live their own lives, instead simply going through the motions, pulled hither and thither by the author to suit her needs. Some will argue that's the point, that Carter is making puppets out of her characters because that is what Uncle Phillip (the villain of the piece) is trying to do to those under his thumb. Which is all well and good, and wonderfully clever, but if in trying to do something literary and clever an author causes me to lose interest in their story, I'd say they've got their priorities all wrong.
Carter is clearly an incredible wordsmith, and I'd be interested in reading some of her later (I'm told, maturer) works - The Magic Toyshop was her second published novel - but this one left me cold. Which, after the revelatory first chapter, was a damn shame.
about to read: Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano
books to go: 107