on February 8th 2018
The Toymakers is a book that I felt certain I would love, there was something about it that simply called out to me. Perhaps it was a childish whim, perhaps it just appeals to the romantic side of my nature that is called forth by nostalgia, but, if you remember a time where a cardboard box was a castle, the underneath of a kitchen table a fortress and a sheet thrown between two washing lines a tent in the wilds then I dare say this will appeal to you too. This is a book that simply shouts out to the child in everyone. It’s packed with imagination. It starts at a time where the country has seen much war and perhaps in such times dreams become hope and toy shops become little miracles of possibility.
The year is 1917, We meet with Cathy Wray who has brought shame to her family by becoming pregnant out of wedlock. There are two solutions, Cathy can be taken to an institution that will deliver her baby and take it for adoption, or she can take herself out of that possible situation by running away. Cathy chooses to run away from her home and finds herself in London where she becomes fortunate enough to find a job, room and board at Papa Jack’s Toy Emporium.
I’m not going to go into the plot any further because not only do I think that this book is best explored by the reader without any fore knowledge but also this book is so much more than the plot itself.
The writing here is beautiful. The Imagination is captivating, and, I think my biggest disappointment is that I just wanted to spend all my time in the Emporium itself – it’s magical, wonderful and breathtaking. I felt like a child in a sweetie shop reading this. It simply took me back. I defy anyone to read this book and not feel the childish wonder that is evoked. The emporium is incredible of itself, wonders that seem to defy expectation, Wendy Houses that are like a tardis once stepped inside, paper trees that seem to grow from tiny little boxes, toy boxes with more space within than quantum physics can explain. Isn’t this just what your imagination was like as a child when anything and everything was possible? The moon was a balloon that you could capture, your bedsheets became a rabbits’ warren and shadows could menace you with hidden faces.
The characters are also something out of a fairytale. We have Papa Jack. He’s like a big old grizzly bear. Everyone is afraid of him whilst at the same time knowing that he’s softer than a wet tissue and loving him. He has a history full of sorrow but at the same time he seems to be full of impossible magic. He has two sons, Kaspar and Emil, they love their father, they love the shop and they love each other but they are inextricably set in a battle, not just of the toy soldiers that they pitch against each other year after year, but for the admiration of the father that they both adore.
Herein lies the crux of the matter. Both boys are in a competition of sorts and one that eventually blinds them to the love they have for each other. They compete over who makes the best toys, who will run the store, who wins their ongoing battle of the soldiers, who gets the girl, and who has the most magic. And, unfortunately, things eventually turn very real and a little bit ugly.
The characters are a mixed bunch. Cathy, although very much at the forefront of things almost feels secondary. The competition between the two boys is very much the underlying force of the story and does in fact lead to something of a love triangle. The thing is, you have sympathy for one of the boys but at the same time it’s always clear who is the favourite of the piece. Not just of Cathy or Papa Jack but of the reader and it’s a little bit sad because you really don’t want to choose between the two but at the same time it feels simply inevitable and also a little bit obvious.
In terms of criticisms. Well, this is a book that, whilst I should have seen the way it was going, I really didn’t. It’s a book that moves with the times and with it comes almost the death of a dream. But, my niggle here comes in the actions of one of the characters. For me it doesn’t ring true and the ending also takes something that is a beautiful dream and tries too much to turn it into something more. For me, the ending chapters simply didn’t work and whilst it didn’t spoil the book for me it changed the feeling somewhat. Otherwise, a stunning book.
Overall I loved this, it’s beautifully told and is perhaps one of the most evocative stories I’ve ever read. I was a little bit underwhelmed with the ending but at the same time, on reflection, I can appreciate how difficult it was to maintain this fantasy and I can see why the author went down this route – I suppose I just wanted the dream to continue.