Rating: 5 stars
The Magic Toyshop won Angela Carter her first literary award, 1968’s John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. It’s her second novel and describes a disturbing moment in the life of Melanie, a 15 year old girl at the edge of womanhood. Melanie is waking up to herself as a sexual being, and the first chapter finds her wondering about her mother as a fellow woman. Her parents are away in America. It’s the summer holidays, and Melanie takes the opportunity to explore her parents’ bedroom in the middle of the night.
During that night and into the following morning, tension builds and a crisis occurs that sees Melanie’s life, and that of her younger siblings, change forever. Carter’s description of Melanie’s midnight adventure is rhythmic and pulsing with emotion.
Carter had a masterful command of language, using words to create vibrant pictures. Her phraseology is often dark, sometimes violent, acknowledging that the dainty, civilised surface of life is underpinned by a primal force.
Photographs are chunks of time you can hold in your hand, this picture a piece of her mother’s best and most beautiful time. Her smiling and youthful mother was as if stabbed through the middle by the camera and caught for ever under glass, like a butterfly in an exhibition case.
He seemed to be inspecting the train, raking the length of it with a slow, sweeping, lop-sided gaze. His eyes were a curious grey green. His Atlantic-coloured regard went over Melanie like a wave; she submerged in it. She would have been soaked if it had been water.
It was as if he had put on a quality of maleness like a flamboyant cloak. He was a tawny lion poised for the kill – and was she the prey? She remembered the lover made up out of books and poems she had dreamed of all summer; he crumpled like the paper he was made of before this insolent, off-hand, terrifying maleness, filling the room with its reek. She hated it. But she could not take her eyes off him.
Melanie and her siblings go to live with an uncle they have never met. They leave the modern comforts of their home and find themselves in a Victorian throwback of a house, all dark paint, cold water and newspaper instead of toilet paper. Uncle Philip is a tyrant, with old fashioned ideas. His wife, Margaret, has been dumb since their wedding day. Margaret’s brothers, Francie and Finn, are slovenly and alien to Melanie. Culture shock is one way of looking at it.
When Carter describes Melanie’s initial reaction to their new existence, she describes depression.
She was a wind-up putting-away doll, clicking through its programmed movements. Uncle Philip might have made her over, already. She was without volition of her own.
But in spite of all that, they were red and had substance and she, Melanie, was forever grey, a shadow. It was the fault of the wedding-dress night, when she married the shadows and the world ended. All this was taking place in an empty space at the end of the world. She dried cups, saucers and plates on a soaking cloth for there was nothing else for her to do.
Through all the hardship of her new circumstances, Melanie’s story is one of awakening. There is attraction between her and Finn. He knows it honestly, but Melanie is young, inexperienced, and repulsed by what she feels. A circumstance is engineered in her uncle’s madhouse that throws Melanie and Finn together. What Melanie feels, what all of us feel from time to time when we are lost or drowning and seeking distraction or rescue, is captured beautifully in Carter’s words.
She began to cry. Finn crawled out of the cupboard on all fours and clasped her knees, burying his head between her thighs. She dug her fingers in his hair convulsively and said the words which floated on top of her mind, thoughtlessly; if she had thought about them, she would never have said them.
‘I think I want to be in love with you but I don’t know how.’
‘There you go again, talking like a woman’s magazine,’ said Finn. ‘What you feel is because of proximity, because I am here.’
This is a dark story but a beautiful one. There is horror held within the pages, and it made me think about how we never really know what goes on behind the closed doors of people’s houses. Cutting through the horror, though, is hope and humanity. Tyrants can be escaped.