The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale (review copy from Del Rey) tries to deliver a magical and whimsical tale along the lines of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, but fails to deliver any of the depth of emotion or insight.
The Toymakers is the story of a magical toy shop in Edwardian Mayfair, run by Papa Jack, his two sons Kasper and Emil, and their community of shop workers. Papa Jack’s toys are legendary for their inventiveness and magic, and the shop’s pre-Christmas opening each year is a famed spectacle. A young woman called Cathy Wray finds refuge there after she runs away from her family, pregnant by a local boy and desperate not to find herself in a home for the mothers of illegitimate children. Cathy is our window into Papa Jack’s Emporium, as it struggles to survive the challenges of the Great War, and a toxic rivalry between Kasper and Emil.
The premise is a great one, and there is definitely a lot of magic in Papa Jack’s Emporium and the family’s creations. Where the book is strongest is in its exploration of the traumatising effects of war in a period where understanding and empathy about mental health problems was very immature and gendered expectations of men made it very difficult to explore those issues. One of the underlying messages of the book is that the experience of trauma can sometimes be necessary to enable one to tap the deepest wells of creativity. The magic of childhood and its toys is made all the more precious when contrasted against the darknesses of war, poverty and trauma.
But I was left fundamentally unsatisfied and disappointed. At its heart this is the story of the rivalry between two Great Men. Cathy, despite being the viewpoint character, is relegated to the role of helpmeet and observer. Loving and loyal, her role is to endure, and she lacks any agency of her own. It is strongly implied that she is the victim of rape, having been pressured into sex by her childhood playmate, but she shows little sign of any lasting trauma and the crisis pregnancy seems little more than a narrative device to force Cathy to move to the Emporium and stay once the winter season is complete. The other female characters are equally thinly drawn. Without greater depth this book will never reach the subtle and delicate heights of something like The Night Circus.
Not only am I tired of reading books about Great Men, but there is a missed opportunity to tell a really interesting story. I want to know more about Cathy and the other women working to hold the Emporium together while her husband and the other men go to war, and dealing with a psychologically damaged husband returning home afterwards. The Cathy dealing with a crisis pregnancy and coming to terms with sexual assault and the rejection of her family. A Cathy who feels trapped by her circumstances. We do Cathy and women like her a disservice by relegating them to passive victims and bystanders in men’s stories.
Goodreads rating: 2*