Nightmares getting a bit stale? Why not reinvigorate your insomnia with Angela Carter’s ‘The Magic Toyshop’ – you may never sleep again!
One of the joys of embarking on a reading challenge is the discovery of authors whose work has previously passed you by. Such was the case with Angela Carter, whose novel Wise Children is on the Guardian’s 100 greatest novels reading list which Lucy and I are working our way through. Having relished the dazzling wit of Wise Children last year, I’ve been meaning to read more of Carter’s work, so when The Magic Toyshop leapt out at me from the bookshelf recently while I was trying to decide what to read next, I knew the time had come.
Hoping for some light relief after all the gruesome Scandi murders I’ve been reading, I was instead thrown into a dark and menacing fairy tale of a novel, in which Carter taps into childhood fears and then magnifies them, providing enough quality nightmare material for me for years to come.
At the beginning of the novel we meet Melanie, a girl of fifteen and on the cusp of womanhood. She, her younger brother and sister are in the care of the housekeeper Mrs Rundle while their parents are away. Typical of her age, Melanie spends a lot of time day-dreaming about growing up and whimsically imagining what her future might hold. One night, unable to sleep, she steals into her parents’ bedroom, and tries on her mother’s wedding dress. Carried away by her romantic reverie, she creeps down to the garden in the dress.
At primary school, in scripture lessons, the teacher described eternity… Eternity she said, was like space in that it went on and on and on with God somewhere in it, like sixpence in a plum pudding (thought Melanie when she was seven) jostled by galaxies for raisins and lonely, maybe, for the company of other sixpences. How lonely God must be, thought Melanie when she was seven. When she was fifteen, she stood lost in eternity wearing a crazy dress, watching the immense sky. Which was too big for her, as the dress had been. She was too young for it. The loneliness seized her by the throat and suddenly she could not bear it. She panicked. She was lost in this alien loneliness and terror crashed into the garden, and she was defenceless against it, drunk as she was on black wine….Too much, too soon…The garden turned against Melanie when she became afraid of it.
Finding herself locked out of the house, she is forced to climb a tree up to her window, a feat which leaves the precious dress in tatters. Full of fear and remorse, she packs the ruined dress back in its trunk. Her concerns that the fate of the dress will be discovered are unfounded, but fate is cruel, and like Adam and Eve being thrown out of the garden of Eden, she can never return to that place of safety and innocence. A Rubicon has been crossed. That very night, her parents have a fatal accident. It marks the end of her childhood. The house is sold, and the children sent to live with an estranged uncle in London.
The novel becomes much darker, and life is hard for Melanie, her brother and sister. They live in extreme hardship with their uncle, Philip Flower, a talented, but cruel toy-maker – honestly, the child-catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has nothing on this guy!
She watched Uncle Philip empty four cups of tea and thought of the liquid turning slowly to urine through his kidneys; it seemed like alchemy, he could transmute liquids from one thing to another. he could also turn wood into swans…His silence had bulk, a height and weight. It reached from here to the sky. It filled the room. He was heavy as Saturn. She ate at the same table as this elemental silence which could crush you to nothing.
His young beautiful wife lost her ability to speak when she married him, and while she is kind to the children she lives in fear of her violent husband, as do her two brothers who also share the harsh conditions of Uncle Philip’s squalid home. The story reads like a whirling distorted carousel lurching from one vision of dystopian horror to the next at breakneck speed. Carter’s academic interest in the power of fairy tales and folklore is plain to see, and elements of Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Blackbeard and Leda and the swan can all be found here.
As a novel about adolescence and the loss of innocence, I couldn’t help comparing The Magic Toyshop to Henri Alain-Fournier’s Le Grandes Meaulnes . Alain-Fournier’s novel is a charmingly melancholic evocation of the rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. If it were a painting, it would be a delicate impressionistic watercolour. By comparison, Carter’s powerfully dystopian vision, would be a dark and menacing expressionistic riot of violence, teeth and bones, and definitely done in oils. The Magic Toyshop cuts straight to the heart of your deepest darkest fears. Prepare to be impressed. Prepare to be terrified.