My rating: 4 stars
Originally published in 1967, The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter occasionally reads like a Victorian novel sprinkled with Ancient Greek mythology influences. As the story progresses, it’s impossible not to start drawing comparisons with the work of Charles Dickens. The book features children who became orphans, a haunting wedding dress, a Christmas day that is not as it should be, and people living in meagre conditions. However, it is also a coming-of-age novel that explores the sexual awakening of a young woman.
Fifteen-year-old Melanie is the main character in this novel. She has two younger siblings – Jonathon and Victoria. They are being looked after by their housekeeper, Mrs Rundle, since their parents are away in America. One day a telegram arrives. Their parents have died in an accident. While Jonathon and Victoria don’t seem to realise how their lives are about to change, Melanie feels that her entire world is falling apart. To make matters worse, she believes that there must be a connection between her having worn her mother’s wedding dress and the death of her parents. It haunts her.
Soon they learn that they are to live with their mother’s brother from then on. Uncle Philip, whom Melanie is only aware of thanks to a photo of her parents’ wedding, is a toymaker in London. It’s not him who is waiting for them at the train station, though. Instead, they are picked up by Finn and Francie, who are their aunt’s brothers.
Living with a new group of people was never going to be easy. But Melanie didn’t expect what awaited them, as their uncle Philip is an old-fashioned brute, who scares everyone around him. And although their aunt Margaret is very kind, she is mute. She stopped being able to speak on her wedding day. Brutish men certainly prefer silent women. Finn is more extroverted than his siblings. He is a bit cheeky and is constantly getting in trouble with Philip. Melanie has conflicting feelings about him.
It’s not only the people who are different at this new place that they have to call home. It’s also the living conditions. The detailed and visual descriptions employed by Angela Carter to paint a picture of the surroundings of the characters help to establish a contrast between the standard of living Melanie was used to and the one she has now. There is no hot water nor toilet paper at the house above the toyshop, for example. It’s not difficult for readers to imagine the place they live in, the same being true of the characters’ gestures and actions in general.
The Magic Toyshop is also full of suggestive metaphors and similes that give the story an artistic and, occasionally, surrealistic flavour.
“Melanie swam like a blind, earless fish in a sea of sedation, where there was no time or memory but only dreams.”
Throughout the book, Melanie is on a discovery journey related to her own body, how it feels like to experience pleasure, the appreciation of desire, consent and how to deal with the attention of men. The opening paragraph is a sensual taste of that.
“The summer she was fifteen, Melanie discovered she was made of flesh and blood. O, my America, my new found land. She embarked on a tranced voyage, exploring the whole of herself, clambering her own mountain ranges, penetrating the moist richness of her secret valleys, a physiological Cortez, da Gama, or Mungo Park.”
While reading, there’s a constant feeling that there’s more to Margaret, Francie and Finn than meets the eye. By the end we know why. Nevertheless, much remains unknown when The Magic Toyshop comes to an end. The fate of various characters is left to the reader’s imagination when a more definite resolution was desired.