The Toymakers, by Robert Dinsdale

toymakersThis book had been on my wish list like forever when I stumbled across Penguin UK‘s Instagram giveaway. I immediately got in and then forgot about it. How delighted I was when I learnt that I had won an ARC! So did The Toymakers live up to my expectations? Let’s find out!
Here is the Goodreads blurb, my review follows.

Do you remember when you believed in magic?

The Emporium opens with the first frost of winter. It is the same every year. Across the city, when children wake to see ferns of white stretched across their windows, or walk to school to hear ice crackling underfoot, the whispers begin: the Emporium is open! 

It is 1917, and London has spent years in the shadow of the First World War. In the heart of Mayfair, though, there is a place of hope. A place where children’s dreams can come true, where the impossible becomes possible – that place is Papa Jack’s Toy Emporium.

For years Papa Jack has created and sold his famous magical toys: hobby horses, patchwork dogs and bears that seem alive, toy boxes bigger on the inside than out, ‘instant trees’ that sprout from boxes, tin soldiers that can fight battles on their own. Now his sons, Kaspar and Emil, are just old enough to join the family trade. Into this family comes a young Cathy Wray – homeless and vulnerable. The Emporium takes her in, makes her one of its own. But Cathy is about to discover that while all toy shops are places of wonder, only one is truly magical.

First, the writing. I read the first pages very slowly, because as a non native English speaker, I had to reread some sentences to make sure I had understood them well. This never happened with my recent English reads : usually I may have some vocabulary to look up, but the syntax is simple enough for me; so I guess Dinsdale’s writing is a little bit more intricate than what I am used to. Or my brain was a bit rusty, who knows. A few pages in, things got easier though, I guess I just had to catch up the rhythm. And once settled, what a delight to read! I guess the right word to describe the writing would be delicate. There was a subtle and elegant poetry in it. Sentences and passages I savoured, as I found the kind of delicacies I am always craving for : finely written stories.

Night crystallised. On the plain, the blackness was never absolute, for the stars whose light was smeared across the heavens were reflected in grain fields and hedgerows.[…] They had walked through the vagaries of twilight, prison outriders hemming them in just as assuredly as the dark. Men on horseback thundered up and down the line, keeping tallies in their heads but never breathing a word.

Also, Dinsdale writes as if he was shooting a movie : zooming on different places and characters as with a camera, slowly delving into every nook and cranny of the Emporium, uncovering the Godmans’ story while doing so.

Consider Jekabs Godman: older than you think him, though you already think him as old as mountains.[….] Watch him now, as he wakes.”

This writing contributed to build a peculiar atmosphere. Now this is a wintry tale, indeed, as its action revolves around a London toy shop that opens with first frost and closes when the first snowdrop blooms.
But there is more. I had a strange feeling when reading it, as if I was not immersed in the story but was looking at the action through a magnifying lens, or the glassy walls of a snow globe, or quite the contrary, through a mouse hole; a Lilliputian in an uncanny giant world. I guess Dinsdale’s “cinematic” writing helped convey this feeling : I was watching a compelling movie, maybe a black and white one, with a dark and enchanting atmosphere, sneaking up after each character to study them. Also, my own personality may have brought this “uncharted territory” feeling : at first, the whole idea of strikingly lifelike, magical toys, which was deemed to be enchanting, seemed awkward to me, if not totally terrifying; so maybe this prevented me from feeling home, but not from enjoying my read, at all. In fact, as the universe seemed foreign to me, I was exploring it, bit by bit, trying to decipher the shop’s secret and the characters’ true soul. And when you dig a bit, besides the magic pouring from the Toymakers’ fingers, you find this same old but still exciting, haunting magic of the human feelings and struggles.
“‘Because, how could a man ever die, when he doesn’t carry his heart with him? When he’s locked it away here, at the bottom of his toybox, with everything else he holds dear? The world outside those doors knows more sorrow than I dare remember – but in here? In here, there is snowfall of paper and rocking horses running wild. There are forest glades and butterflies of satin[…]- and there is the memory’,he whispered. ‘Of when we were two little boys, who knew nothing other than our games.'”
Now for the characters. First there is Cathy: the one whose feelings and questioning are the most detailed. She is the trigger of the story, the one who roughs up the Godmans’ universe. She is relatable and highly lovable : her bravery, her maturity, her patient love and care… well she is the kind of woman I would like to be.

“Was there a word for having done something wrong and yet so terribly right at the same time?”

Then Kaspar, Emil and Jekabs. The rivalry between the two brothers and the tumultuous, distressing past of their father are what truly shape the story. The war is an important character of the novel as well, as there are hints on how WWI hurt countries: the nationalist tensions it revived, the families broken by it (and the Godmans were no exception to that)… But somehow it remains remote. The true tragedy is the one unfolding behind the tortuous walls of the Emporium.

This is a tale about family in the end. Love, loss, transmission, rivalry, frustrations. Every ingredient of a family drama is present there, entangled with fantastic elements that make this novel absolutely unique. It conveys a very tender view on human beings and is a vibrant tribute to the power of toys and imagination. It is also threaded with a kind of melancholy that captures your whole heart. But luckily, there is hope and joy in the end.

The novel also contains an interesting reflexion on what it means to be alive. Regarding the magical toys crafted by the Godmans (God men, see). Regarding consciousness itself, as Dinsdale offers us a beautiful allegory of the awakening of our human psyche. But also regarding human beings facing troubled times. When tragedies break your body and mind, test your resolution and your ethics, what helps you survive? When you come back from hell, are you truly still alive? Are your smiles, dreams, laughters and ambitions still intact, is your humanity unharmed? And most importantly, can a wounded soul be healed?

In short, “The Toymakers” caught me off guard. I was expecting one kind of story, and got something totally different: more mature, more intense, more subtly moving. A book that will remain close to my heart.
“And maybe, just maybe, all we are, every last one of us, is a toy brought to life.”
Oh, and I am not afraid of lifelike toys anymore, quite the contrary now…
Rating : ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐/5

3 thoughts on “The Toymakers, by Robert Dinsdale

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