The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter
Angela Carter died in 1992 at the tragically early age of 51. At that time I remember reading her brilliant novels ‘A Night at the Circus’ and ‘Wise Children’. I never read The Magic Toyshop, which was her second novel, published in 1967.
It has been re-released by Virago Modern Classics as part of their 40th birthday series. Stunning new covers have been designed by Yehrin Tong which make you want to buy the whole series.
I was unprepared for this novel not to have aged. I thought that it would feel old and dated after fifty years. No chance. It is fresh, poignant and full of beautiful writing. So good in fact, that I ordered some other Angela Carter titles that I missed all those years ago.
The Magic Toyshop is a short book of 220 pages. Not a huge amount happens in it, but the style of writing is very descriptive. Each scene has an abundance of information, a wealth of tiny details which makes it almost photographic.
Our central character is Melanie, a girl of almost sixteen who has just lost both parents and her home. She and her two much younger siblings are sent to live with an uncle they have never met. He owns the toyshop of the title, but runs it with a rod of iron. Melanie encounters the row of old shops in south London for the first time. “A fruit shop, with artificial grass banked greenly in the windows and glowing oranges, trapped like winter suns; groping, mottled hands of bananas; giant green roses which turned out to be Savoy cabbages when you looked more closely; buds of black currant cordial which were red cabbages, to be cooked in spices and vinegar.” Far too much detail but all magical and sometimes slightly sinister.
But this is no sugar and spice tale for children. We see cruelty, abuse, neglect and even incest. The childish setting of the toyshop hides many adult themes. It is a coming of age tale for Melanie when she encounters Finn, a cousin by marriage and also an orphan forced to live in the strange turmoil of Uncle Philip’s toyshop. There is a lovely scene where Finn walks Melanie to the local park and shows her the ruined statues. He takes the bubble gum from his mouth and sticks it “deliberately on Queen Victoria’s swelling stone backside”, before kissing Melanie. She is horrified by the experience and, when it is over, Finn prises the bubble gum off the statue, “examined it for impurities and put it back in his mouth.”
A great book, and if you have never encountered Angela Carter before, a great place to start a new journey of discovery.
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson
Hachette, RRP $24.99