Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

I’ve been meaning to read Angela Carter for a while now, and after a failed attempt at The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (in retrospect, not the best place to start with her novels) I picked up The Magic Toyshop from the library. An absolute treat full of powerful surreal imagery and Carter’s strong feminist writing, it’s a formidable early work in her career.

Melanie is fifteen years old and fears that she will die unloved and a virgin. One night while her parents are away, she wanders out into the garden in her mother’s wedding dress but is locked out of the house. Her desperate attempt to get back in through her bedroom window by climbing up the apple tree see the dress destroyed and Melanie goes to bed distraught. The next day she and her brother and sister are told that their parents have died in a plane crash.

After this spellbinding beginning, Carter sends the newly orphaned Melanie, along with siblings Jonathan and Victoria, to live with her Uncle Philip, a toymaker in South London. He lives in a cold house without running hot water over his toy shop with his wife Margaret, who hasn’t spoken a word since they were married and communicates through a blackboard, and her brothers Francie, a sensitive musician, and the volatile Finn, a talented painter who spies on Melanie and kisses her in the ruins of Crystal Palace park one night. Philip dominates the household, forcing the children to work for their keep and forbidding Melanie to wear trousers.

Uncle Philip’s toys are hand-crafted wonders, but his main passion is for puppets, creating puppet shows in the shop’s basement for his wife and the children to watch. After Finn drops one the puppets, the belligerent and brutish Philip demands that Melanie acts in his next show instead – a rendering of Leda and the Swan in which Melanie plays Leda, molested by a huge mechanical swan...

Philip’s tyranny over the women finally breaks when Finn gets drunk and destroys the swan. The next day Philip is out of the house, leaving the place in near revolution. Free for a few hours, the brothers play music and rejoice:

Francie sat in the kitchen with his fiddle in one hand and a half-empty bottle of whisky in the other. “Jesus,” he said to Finn, “You made free with the Scotch last night!” “It was Chrismas, after all,” said Finn. “Besides, I was thirsty in the middle of the night.” “I can see that,” said Francie half derisively. “You must have been drunk as a lord, waving your little hatchet.”

Finn, especially, gets stuck in:

He was drinking Scotch again. Soon he would become sentimental. But he was not grinning at her; she was glad his satyr’s grin was safe on the face of the devil in the painting, never to embarrass her any more... “You’re drunk.” “I expect I will be, presently.” “You are quite your old self.” “No. Let’s not exaggerate.” And he was straining to be happy. It was not spontaneous, he was trying too hard. Melanie was sorry for him and moved closer to him. They sat together on the table. Francie’s whisky was almost done.

As they run out of booze, Finn gets sent out for more supplies:

When the pubs opened, Finn went out and returned clinking many bottles of Guinness, though Melanie did not know where he had got the money. “I got Guinness to prove we’re Irish,” he said. Francie and Finn pressed Melanie to drink a few mouthfuls of the treacly stuff... Finn unwisely gave Guinness to Victoria and suddenly she sank down and out on the rug, with her head between the dog’s paws. The room took on a debauched and abandoned look.

Philip will have to return at some point though, and when he does, the result will be apocalyptic...

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