One night Melanie walks through the garden in her mother's wedding dress. The next morning her world is shattered. Forced to leave the comfortable home of her childhood, she is sent to London to live with relatives she never met: Aunt Margaret, beautiful and speechless, and her brothers, Francie, whose graceful music belies his clumsy nature, and the volatile Finn, who kisses Melanie in the ruins of the pleasure garden. And brooding Uncle Philip loves only the life-sized wooden puppets he creates in his toyshops. The classic gothic novel established Angela Carter as one of our most imaginative writers and augurs the themes of her later creative works.
‘The Magic Toyshop’ opens with the most dreamlike but realistic description of teenaged womanhood that I have yet to read. Melanie, the book’s protagonist, is perched on the edge of adulthood, and more-or-less without supervision in the family house for the summer. She frets about her beauty going to waste – because nobody has ever kissed her – then imagines having sex for the first time, dresses up in a stolen wedding dress and falls out of a tree. This sequence of events somewhat illustrates Carter’s skill in weaving the mundane with very human sentiments, and then heaping big helpings of fantasy on top.
I love this novel, if I’m being honest, purely because it is so strange. Reading it I feel released from the constraints of real life, despite the dark happenings that await Melanie in her uncle’s Magic Toyshop. I can allow myself to imagine that puppets might come alive, that prophecies are real, that you can save people with dramatic gestures of love. I can believe this for as long as Melanie believes it. Then, when Melanie is unsure, I can follow her back down that path to familiar daily life, and put thoughts of the supernatural to one side. This, in my view, is Carter’s genius. She grounds the magical happenings of the book in enough doubt, turmoil and adolescent uncertainty to allow us to question them. She puts us back in the shoes we wore as children stumbling through the world, learning everything for the first time. I re-learn the world by reading this book. I give magic one more chance to really exist, to be hidden in the dark spaces that I can’t see into – such as other people’s minds. I hope that you too will give this book its chance to enchant you, and leave you feeling suddenly unsure about the world and unclear if you’re happy about that or not.