This elemental silence which could crush you to nothing

magic-toyshopThe Magic Toyshop
by Angela Carter

This book was not what I had imagined, having read two previous works by Carter, but it was equally wonderful and has cemented her as one of the great authors for me.

The title had suggested to me something a bit fantastical, which aligned with my experience of Carter (I’d previously read Nights at the Circus and The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman) but – on the surface, at least – this book stays within the realm of reality. And yet from the very first page, there is an air of dark fantasy pervading the background.

The story centres on 15-year-old Melanie. She and her two younger siblings have to move from the middle-class comforts of their country home to live in relative poverty with their Uncle Philip in London. He is a toymaker but in every way defies the expectations of that label – he is tall, broad, strong, dark and frequently violent. He shows no kindness or empathy for the uprooted children.

“His silence had bulk, a height and a weight. It reached from here to the sky. It filled the room. He was heavy as Saturn. She ate at the same table as this elemental silence which could crush you to nothing.”

The family is completed by Philip’s mute wife Margaret and her two brothers, Finn and Francie. Finn is an object of reluctant fascination for Melanie – he never washes or changes his clothes, but he is also dainty and graceful, as well as being a masterful toy-builder. Francie is almost his opposite: meticulously clean and neat, but clumsy and useless to the toyshop, aside from the income he earns playing violin.

They are a curious, complex family and their effect on an impressionable 15-year-old is of course deep and irreversible. Carter created such a true, honest depiction of a teenage girl in Melanie. She is distracted by her own body and burgeoning sexual desire, but she also shows awareness of where such desire will lead that belies her otherwise overactive imagination.

“It was as if he had put on the quality of maleness like a flamboyant cloak. He was a tawny lion poised for the kill – and was she the prey? She remembered the lover made up out of books and poems she had dreamed of all summer; he crumpled like the paper he was made of before this insolent, off-hand, terrifying maleness, filling the room with its reek. She hated it. But she could not take her eyes off him.”

The setting is dark, sordid and grimy at every turn yet somehow there is a touch of magic, because all these details are of course fertive soil for fairy tale. Dark, dark fairy tale.

First published 1967 by W Heinemann.

Source: I think I bought this for myself, but I don’t know when or where from.

Challenges: This counts towards the Classics Club.