I’m often tempted to skip the summary when reviewing a book, because, most of the time, the story as such doesn’t tell you a lot about a book. This is especially true in the case of Angela Carter. Her second novel The Magic Toyshop is no exception. It tells the story of a young girl, 15 year-old Melanie, who loses her parents the day after exploring the nightly parental garden in her mother’s wedding dress. She and her two siblings are then sent to her maternal Uncle Philip, a toy maker. At her uncle’s house she meets her Aunt Margaret and her aunt’s two brothers Finn and Francie. One is a painter, the other one a fiddler. It’s a very strange household. Creepy, joyless and fearful when her uncle is around; excentric and exuberant when he’s out. There’s a strange attraction between Finn and Melanie and one night, in the ruin of a magical garden, he kisses her. Melanie is confused by this because she doesn’t really fancy Finn. Additionally they have to hide their attraction because their uncle hates affection and emotions; he only lives for and through his toys and puppets. The grand finale is set in motion when Melanie has to play Leda in a cruel version of Leda and the Swan. Finn not only refuses to play along, but he takes revenge. Will the inhabitants of the sinister uncle’s house be able to free themselves or will they continue to be puppets in his hands?
A summary like this doesn’t tell you anything about the lush richness of the writing or what it feels like to enter an Angela Carter novel. Reading The Magic Toyshop is like entering an antiques shop or a shop with vintage clothes. You move from one beautiful garment to the next, from one arresting object to the following, only instead of objects and clothes you find sentences and images, allusions to fairy tales and myths, all woven into a shimmering tapestry. I felt like walking around in a stuffy room; in one corner I saw Bluebeard, in the next Red Riding Hood, and, over there, in a corridor, I spotted Dickens. Uncle Philip is like Bluebeard but he’s also a counter piece to the many bad stepmothers in fairy tales. He decidedly plays the role of a very bad step-father. He’s an illustration of Carter’s play with gender clichés and tropes. Why does it always have to be the step mother who is vicious and vitriolic? In The Magic Toyshop the older women are positive, maternal figures. The older man is wicked and the younger are dreamy and wild.
The amazing thing in Carter’s writing is, that in spite of its complexity, it is very accessible and even entertaining. You can read The Magic Toyshop without being aware of the subtext, the allusions and references and still enjoy it. But, of course, she’s an author who makes you want to pick up books on her writing. It makes it so much richer, when you know what she is referring to or what she deconstructs.
Before I end this somewhat disjointed review (we have a heat wave currently and it’s hard to concentrate) I’d like to mention two more elements and maybe someone else can tell me how to interpret them:
Dirt – Dirt plays an important role in this novel. Melanie comes from a rich, elegant environment and everyone is clean at all times. Not so in Uncle Philip’s household where it’s hard to find warm water or soap and the people and their clothes are filthy. I remember from other stories that dirt is important but I’m not sure what meaning it has.
Incest – There’s open incest and incestuous moments in the novel. This is also a recurring theme.
The Magic Toyshop has been made into a movie which you can watch on YouTube. Angela Carter was fascinated by cinema and has twice contributed to the scripts of her own stories. This may be one of the reasons why anyone can enjoy her work – it’s always very visual.
This is my first review for Angela Carter week, co-hosted with Delia (Postcards from Asia).