‘The Toymakers’ by Robert Dinsdale

★★★★

Some books just lend themselves to a reading soundtrack. Personally, I think The Toymakers should be read whilst reading to ‘Sleigh Ride’, Nightwish’s ‘Taikatalvi’ and ‘Once upon a December’ from the movie Anastasia. Why such an eclectic soundtrack? Because The Toymakers somehow manages to be simultaneously jolly, ecstatic, nostalgic, magical, slightly creepy and emotionally powerful. 

Papa Jack’s Emporium is a very special toy shop. It is not to be discovered by random passersbys. Rather the shop is a destination in itself, hidden away in a London side street. The shop opens it doors only when the first frost comes and shuts its doors when the first winter blossoms show. The toys sold their are every child’s dream: mechanical animals so life like they must be trained, beautiful dolls, boxes that are larger on the inside than outside, toy birds that can fly etc. Imagine the love-child of Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes and Santa’s Workshop! The inventor of the almost magical contraptions is Papa Jack himself. He is rarely seen on the shop floor; he sits in his workshop creating the world’s most wondrous contraptions for the enjoyment of children. The day-to-day running is left to his young sons Kaspar and Emil. Although the two boys share their father’s joy of bringing out the inner everyone, they are also extremely different. Kaspar is vain, handsome and has inherited his father’s genius for magical toys. Sadly, his self image is based on being more intelligent and successful of than his little brother. Emil is a bit chubby, insecure of himself and extremely jealous of his brother. Their sibling rivalry has developed into something quite unhealthy. 

One day Cathy Wray shows up and seeks sanctuary in the Emporium. She is a pregnant fifteen year old runaway, who might  have the heart of a child and little knowledge of the world outside her parent’s house, but is also plucky, intelligent and with a good sense of her own self-worth. Cathy manages to create a home for herself and her daughter in this magical world of wonders where everything feels safe and warm. But then the first world war begins and the tensions of the world outside the shop window, come in to affect the Emporiom’s inhabitants. All the hidden conflicts come into the light. And strange things start happening with the toys. Can the Emporium retain its magic in this new world of war and tragedy?

The magical system in this book is never really explained. There are plenty of fantasy books that give almost scientific like accounts of how magic works. Dinsdale stays away from all of that, and I think that is the perfect choice for this story. The magic remains mysterious and incomprehensible; it reminiscent of how the magic of Santa might seem to a very young child – something fantastic that can never really be understood or grasped, only experienced and marveled at.

My heart went out to every single one of the characters in this book. There are no villains in this story; even the boy that impregnates and leaves Cathy is shown in a forgiving light – he is just a frightened fifteen year old boy! The characters might do some horrible things, but they are all actions that are perfectly reasonable from their point of view. Emil’s trickery, Kaspar’s lies to Cathy, Cathy’s denial of her husband’s shell-shock – all can be explained by each character’s wish to stay inside their dream universe. And who can blame them! The always-Christmas sounds a million times better than the death and cruelty of WW1. 

The book is about a toy-shop that brings out the best Christmas memories in every child and adult, and the book equally conjures up every advent-memory in your body. For me that means the taste of gingerbread, tangerines, the sent of cardamom and temperatures under -10 C. After reading this book I was so filled with anticipation for Christmas, I though I would burst! 

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