puppets without strings: the magic toyshop (angela carter)

It’s a little ironic, really, that I bought this book in autumn 1999 (when I first came to Reading University) just to carry it around with me / have it wait in boxes and on shelves until last saturday, and then read the whole thing in two days. But I am glad it waited for me!

virago edition, “the magic toyshop”
by angela carter
This is quite the book – it really drew me in. The main character, a fifteen year-old English girl named Melanie, the oldest of three siblings, is an introvert teenager who longs to figure out her place in the world, who she will be, who she could or should be – and she has, from the outset, quite a specific idea of what she wants from life:

She stuck moon-daisies in her long hair and looked at herself in her mirror as if she were a photograph in her own grown-up photograph album. ‘Myself at fifteen.’ And, following, the pictures of her children […] and pet dogs, and summer-snapped future holidays. […] the pet dogs, would they be Yorkshire terriers or corgis; or noble, hawk-nosed Afghan hounds or a pair of white greyhounds on a golden chain?

She said to the daisy girl with her big, brown eyes: ‘I will not have it plain. No. Fancy. It must be fancy.’ She meant her future. A moon-daisy dropped to the floor, down from her hair, like a faintly derisive sign from heaven. (p.7-8)

Melanie is at a point where she wants to shed her childhood self like an old skin. Her secretly trying on her mother’s wedding gown is more than just a private rite of passage, – her entire life changes from here. Like the wedding gown, the life that she is cast into seems too large, bound to trip her up and take away her freedom of moving, running, climbing. Finding herself suddenly orphaned and forced to move, with her brother and baby-sister, to London to live with relatives she has never met, Melanie suddenly finds herself in a whole different world, where she does not have her own perfumed bar of soap or even hot running water. The baby and the younger brother are quickly integrated into the new ‘family,’ but Melanie feels like an outsider. She feels that somehow she has caused all this.

Eve must have felt like this on the way east out of Eden,’ she thought. ‘And it was Eve’s fault.’ (p.94)

The central conflict in this book is — as I experienced it — between Melanie and her uncle Philip, the toymaker. Secretly, he is also a puppeteer; he not only makes elaborate, almost life-size puppets, but also performs plays for his captive family audience. This is exactly why Melanie draws his attention on herself — because he cannot control her like, for instance, he controls his wife, who has been mute since the day of their wedding. How interesting is the description of the necklace he gives to his wife on the day they are married:

The necklace was a collar of dull silver, two hinged silver pieces knobbed with moonstones which snapped into place around her lean neck and rose up almost to her chin so that she could hardly move her head. It was heavy, crippling and precious and looked as though it might be very ancient, pre-Christian or possibly even pre-Flood although, in fact, it was not. […] Wearing the collar, Aunt Margaret had to carry her head high and haughty as the Queen of Assyria, but above it her eyes were anxious and sad and not proud at all. (112-113)

There is so much going on in this book in terms of human relationships, family and love relationships, in terms of symbolism (birds, muteness, etc), in terms of recurrent motifs (dogs, christian references, etc etc), that I don’t want to try and touch on all of it, because it would just be skimming the surface while giving away too much of the plot. This is an intense book, without being graphic. Carter’s writing is powerful, even startling. Although this book has been around since the late 1960s it is certainly no old hat.

She splashed the shreds of the absurd night out of her eyes with cold water. The well-iced shock of water did her good as it took her breath away; it impinged on her, it was palpable. Water is water. You can’t argue with water. There it is. (182)

Melanie herself is like water – when her family is broken up, she goes on, she runs through the cracks, and somehow goes around the obstacles her uncle constructs. In the end, the water runs through his fingers, he cannot hold it. By the time he realizes it, it is too late, and Melanie’s influence has dissolved the foundations of his regime of terror and forced silence. It is good not to see an attempt at explanation of especially the uncle’s behavior. This story is not about guilt and innocence, good or bad. It is much more complex.

This is a coming-of-age story if you want to throw it into a category, but also has an uncanny fairytale feel to it. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, – it scared me, it touched me, it made me awkward, it made me think. It is also a love story of sorts – not the soppy kind. An awkward, detached, somewhat apprehensive but curious type of relationship develops. At the end, we see a changed melanie, one who has taken charge of herself.

Bottom line: Read it!

Lamia (Waterhouse)

Lamia (Waterhouse)


About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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