The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter | Book Review

The Magic Toyshop tells the story of a young woman who, by a very tragic accident, is forced to live with her uncle and his family. She has to take her brother and sister with her, and she soon realizes that her uncle is not what she thought he could be. So instead of being the paternal figure that she needed, he turns out to be very manipulative and very cruel.

I think this novel actually inspired Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events so, if it did, that would be pretty cool.

Apart from her family, in the house lives her uncle’s wife and her two brothers so in total there are seven people living in a tiny house, that is also part of a toyshop. Seven is a very symbolic number because it represents the eternal, but also the joining of the terrenal with the celestial. Throughout the novel the theme of religious consciousness is explored not related to any particular religion, but in terms of spirituality and the self. Because the protagonist is growing into womanhood, she learns about sexualiy and her own body, but she also learns about the ways of the world and how a patriarchal society can exert violence on women through the sexuality.

The uncle’s house, as I said, is part of the toyshop so they’re constantly surrounded life-sized puppets that become very uncanny, and sometimes you feel that the puppets are watching them, or become a representation of them. The border between reality and the stage is constantly blurred, and the characters cross the border from one place to another. The novel begins with a very beautiful description of Melanie’s exploration of her own sexuality, but soon this idyllic image is corrupted once she meets the uncle, and she realizes that women have been silenced through marriage. Melanie’s first representation of paradise as if she’s naked running in the garden and she’s happy, but once she gets to the uncle’s house she realizes that marriage can be very oppressing to women and this is seen in the aunt’s choker that you can see that it is silencing her and her right to speak. She has to wear it every Sunday, which is the day when they got married, and it is also the day in which she has to have sex with the uncle.

The idea of marriage, sexuality and being silenced is kept throughout the novel, and with the idea that of the wedding dress that also appears several times in the novel; however, not only the women are controlled: all of the characters fall under the power of the uncle, and he seems to be manipulating all of their lives. At times you feel that they haven’t escaped form the stage, and that the uncle is playing with his puppets and constructing their own lives. The beautiful book cover has the representation of this metaphor, as you can see there is the uncle at the top of the stage, then there’s Melanie wearing a wedding dress in the staging of Leda and the Swan which is very important, and it is very uncanny because it makes a parallelism between Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit, and Leda with the Swan. So this correlation of images is creepy, but the way that she describes it is beautiful.

Carter’s writing is poetic and she alludes to the metaphysical poets in this novel. She uses the idea of the conceit which is an extended allegory so things that you don’t think would match, she makes them match and she makes the allusion as I said, between the Virgin Mary and Leda and the Swan. And that makes for a very witty and intelligent prose. There are also elements of the parodical, so sometimes when there seems to be a very serious and solemn tone she ends the sentence with something that is funny and completely destroys the sentence. But it’s very intelligent and it works very well.

Her language is also very descriptive, and in this case I thought it was very feminine and delicate. Even on moments when there’s a clear violence on the characters and the clear fear of the uncle, Melanie’s descriptions remain delicate and remain feminine. So there’s this idea in spite of the patriarchal oppression of the uncle, she’s still a women that has a voice and she’s fighting to give voice to the other characters as well.

The novel is also a mosaic of intertextuality so if you don’t know the reference you might lose some part of the meaning that Carter is intending. On a second reading I found some several things that I had not found on the first reading, so I would advice you to read them several times, and look up certain things so that you can understand the references

I have to say that the novel is very slow-paced. It has a very powerful beginning, but after that there is a moment of stillness that is kept for most of the book. However, in this moment of stillness, there are several important things that happen and most of the times there’s a reflection on the themes that are being developed, so the action is more inside the minds of the characters that in the outside world.

The novel reminded me a lot of Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu, and Jamaica inn by Daphne du Maurier, so if you like those novels this might be a very good one to read next.

Here is beginning of The Magic Toyshop so you can see the use of the conceit and how beautiful the prose is:

The summer she was fifteen, Melanie discovered she was made of flesh and blood. O, my America, my new found land. She embarked on a tranced voyage, exploring the whole of herself, clambering her own mountain ranges, penetrating the moist richness of her secret valleys, a physiological Cortez, da Gama or Mungo Park. For hours she stared at herself, naked, in the mirror of her wardrobe; she would follow with her finger the elegant structure of her rib-cage, where the heart fluttered under the flesh like a bird under a blanket, and she would draw down the long line from breast-bone to navel (which was a mysterious cavern or grotto), and she would rasp her palms against her bud-wing shoulder blades. And then she would writhe about, clasping herself, laughing, sometimes doing cartwheels and handstands out of sheer exhilaration at the supple surprise of herself now she was no longer a little girl.

I’ve also discovered that, every time that I read a novel by Carter my rating varies as I go along the book, and as I think about it and as I reread it. So with this novel I began rating it with 2.5 stars, then when I finished it I sad “No, it should be 4 stars”, and I thought about it, and though it should be 4.5 stars, and now I’m not sure whether it should be 4.5 or the whole 5 stars. I think I’m going to reread this later on to make up my mind, but that it is the overall rating: 4.5-5 stars!

I highly recommend this novel, it’s so so good: it’s funny, uncanny, gothic, and it’s also very relaxing to read on a rainy day.

Lots of love,

Published by Dany Szelsky

I worked as a TA at university from 2017-2018 teaching the seminars of Gothic Literature, Postmodernist Literature, and Modernist Literature. I worked from 2018-2019 as a High School Literature teacher with six groups on 10th grade and one in 12th grade. I taught 7 classes to over 180 students. I am currently studying an MA in English and American Studies at Ca' Foscari University of Venice.

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