NATASHA PULLEY The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Reviewed by Jacqui Dent
Readers will delight in this historical fantasy, a story built precisely as a piece of clockwork.
The year is 1883 and Thaniel Steepleton is working as a clerk in London when an unknown person breaks into his bed-sit, does the washing up and leaves the present of a pocket watch. Thaniel is bemused by the incident, until the watch saves his life from an explosion. Then he becomes suspicious. His investigations lead him to Keita Mori, the watchmaker of Filigree Street. Mori is an eccentric Japanese migrant whose clockwork creations and uncanny intuition have Thaniel quickly enthralled. But is Mori as kind as he appears?
Meanwhile, in Cambridge, Grace Carrow is a young woman with a problem. A theoretical physicist, Grace is already reduced to dressing as a man in order to enter the university library. Now, with her degree completed, she must achieve financial independence if she is to continue a life of science. There is a house and a substantial amount of money to her name, but only in the form of a dowry. Grace must find a man to marry.
When Grace meets Thaniel, she thinks she has found the perfect candidate. But Thaniel’s life has been taken over by the watchmaker, and as Grace attempts to tear him free, events take an explosive turn.
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is a speculative and historical delight. Pulley gifts a sense of magic to the mundane as well as to the extraordinary in her universe, offering the reader an office clerk who sees colour in sound, a Belgravia lady whose science goes bang in the basement, and a traditional Japanese village in the centre of Victorian London (a real historical event).
Pulley’s prose is witty and enchanting. This book is peppered with sentences that will make you want to tap the nearest stranger on the shoulder and share them: ‘There was a crash from upstairs that sounded a lot like an octopus breaking through the back of a dresser’ and ’Matsumoto gave him the amused look of an experienced dandy meeting his younger self.’
But the greatest treat of all is the watchmaker, Mori, who is fascinating and fantastic. He creates impossible pieces of clockwork: golden pears that sprout growing vines; garden fairies to distract next door’s vandal children, and a mischievous octopus called Katsu:
There was a bump from under the sink [… and] an octopus fell out. It was made of clockwork and it gleamed in the lamplight, but it was so like the real thing that Thaniel recoiled. The octopus seemed to consider things for a moment, then waved two of its arms. The watchmaker lifted it up and put it in a small water tank on the windowsill, where it drifted around with every sign of contentment.
Mori’s clockwork creations are only a sideshow to his true wonder: he can remember the future. It’s a talent that allows him to arrange marvellous coincidences – chance meetings, lucky escapes –but also misfortune and possibly even death. And herein lies the major problem that Pulley presents to the reader: does Mori’s eccentricity mask a darker and more dangerous nature? Can manipulation ever be benevolent? And does it matter?
In The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Pulley has attempted to create a story complicated and intricate. Unfortunately, the book didn’t quite deliver the ‘ah-ha!’ moment that I wanted or would have expected from this kind of puzzle-narrative. This may be the kind of book that requires two readings before the denouement is fully illuminated. However, having read it only once, I reached the end feeling a little at sea.
Nevertheless, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street was one of those rare books that compelled me stay up nights worrying over the happiness of its protagonists. It raised philosophical questions about the nature of love and free will that kept me occupied long after I closed the final page. It is reminiscent in style and tone of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and readers who cherished that novel will find equal delight in this enchanting historical fantasy.
Natasha Pulley The Watchmaker of Filigree Street Bloomsbury 2015 PB 336pp $29.99
Jacqui Dent has had short works published in Voiceworks, Verity La, the Emerging Writer and broadcast on ABC Radio National. She is in the final stages of writing her first novel, a supernatural dark comedy for young adults. Visit her at www.jacquident.net or Twitter: @notjacquident.
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