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