I didn’t expect a novel by Angela Carter called The Magic Toyshop to actually be about a whimsical happy place of magical toys and childhood joys, but I also didn’t really expect this book to be as dark as it turned out to be. And I’m not entirely sure what to think about it. It’s unsettling.
When the novel’s main character, 15-year-old Melanie, is suddenly orphaned, she and her younger brother and sister are sent from their comfortable country home to live in London with their uncle, a toymaker named Philip. Philip runs his squalid household with a tight fist, keeping close control over his mute wife, Margaret, and her two brothers, Finn and Francie. The household finds little bits of joy in music, but mostly every moment is managed by Philip, who only takes joy in creating puppet shows. (A metaphor that is maybe too on the nose.)
In the midst of this, Melanie is coming to terms with her own sexual maturity, and this process comes wrapped up in her realization that 19-year-old Finn is attracted to her. He makes some small attempts to become Melanie’s defender against Philip, but Philip’s power over Finn — and the whole household — is strong, so Melanie gets pulled into Philip’s plots in upsetting and potentially traumatizing ways.
The novel ends with a major cataclysm, a result of the characters taking back just a tiny bit of freedom. But, here, the story fell apart for me. Up to that point, I was moderately interested, mostly because of the creepy atmosphere and the puppets. But then there’s a revelation and a disaster with tremendous implications that just pop up — and then the book ends. The revelation about the nature of the relationship between two of the characters seems there mostly to infuriate Philip. And although it makes for a good Gothic twist, it felt underutilized and almost arbitrary, there for shock value.
Even more disturbing is the likely fate of one of the characters in the midst of the closing disaster. It felt like the character had been forgotten entirely, and when the character is mentioned, it also feels arbitrary, there to show he wasn’t forgotten, but also wasn’t much cared about narratively. This could actually make for a good character moment, but there’s zero reflection about it.
In essence, the ending felt extremely rushed, and although I wouldn’t necessarily want the thematic relevance of these closing events spelled out, I wanted more acknowledgement of what was actually happening. The characters seemed to be thinking about all the wrong things, which is fine if their misplaced priorities had been well established, but I’m not sure it was. In fact, the narrative seemed have the same mixed up priorities as the characters, and that left me unsettled in the wrong way.