This review originally appeared in The Guardian.
Dolls in popular culture haven’t done themselves any favours. They’re battling an image problem. In the best case scenario, a discarded doll might end up on the cover of a crime paperback, a drab emblem of sullied innocence; in the worst, as in Chucky’s case, it will terrorise an entire town. To collect antique dolls, as the protagonists of this novel do, is to be seen through a glacial mass of cultural prejudice. What, we are inclined to wonder, does anyone see in them?
An only child born with proportionate dwarfism, Andrew Garvie resigns himself at an early age to exclusion and solitude, exchanging schoolyard taunts for dismal office ‘banter’. ‘There is no point,’ he concludes, ‘in even trying to belong’. He devotes himself instead to dolls, at first as an avid collector, then as dollmaker in his own right. He haunts auction houses and scours even the personal pages of specialist periodicals. It is here that he first encounters Bramber Winters.
It is here, too, that we enter the lives of dolls, but relax – it’s not what you think. Nina Allan has been known until now for her speculative fiction, but The Dollmaker is not concerned with the supernatural, at least in the usual sense. This literary experiment has a conventional setting, in a contemporary England that feels only slightly askew. The good news is that its living dolls are kept within safely figurative bounds, avatars of the exotic in a moving fable of otherness. The bad news, at least for some, is that they are every bit as unsettling as tradition requires.
Fittingly, given its subject, The Dollmaker toys with us almost from the start. It is framed by an oddball quest narrative, set in motion when Andrew replies to Bramber’s personal ad and the two begin a stilted but consuming correspondence. She is seeking information about a Polish writer and dollmaker named Ewa Chaplin, whose work has obsessed her since childhood. ‘She seemed to know,’ Bramber writes, ‘that dolls are people just like us.’
Andrew, it must be said, is a somewhat unreliable narrator, and at times resembles a peculiarly guileless stalker. ‘I had been writing to Bramber for a year,’ he says, ‘before I understood that we were destined to be together.’ This, we suspect, will come as a surprise to Bramber, whose own intentions are so far opaque. In her oddly ingenuous letters, she reminisces freely about her youth but is reticent about her present circumstances. Still, her hints are broad enough for the reader (suggesting an institional existence in a small Cornish village) if not for Andrew, who assumes that she simply dislikes using the telephone.
Without announcing his intentions, therefore, he resolves to visit her, embarking on the bumbling odyssey that gives the novel its conventional momentum. Its imaginative energy, though, unfolds unexpectedly from within, as if from a series of opulent music boxes.
Andrew sets out for the West Country, pursuing his romantic destiny with the stolid meticulousness of a loveless scoutmaster. His reasonably priced rover ticket, he notes with satisfaction, will enable him ‘to switch freely between bus, coach and train’ as his itinerary demands. To pass the time on the journey, he begins reading the Ewa Chaplin stories to which Bramber is devoted. And here the mechanism quickens, setting its mirrors in motion.
The stories are modern fairy tales, in the macabre and claustrophobic tradition of Angela Carter, and are richly veined with myth and folklore. Their settings are half-recognisable – a twilit Mittereuropa, a London overshadowed by fascism – and their recurring motifs seem come to seem foreboding. There is disfigurement and banishment, jealousy and thwarted triumph. And there is a more persistent theme, familiar from the Schubert lied: the doomed love of a wilful queen for her court dwarf. Here, as in the ballad, he is a figure not of ridicule but of enigmatic potency, who destroys the queen because he cannot possess her. Dolls are people, it seems, but perhaps not quite like us.
Andrew grows bolder as his encounter with Bramber approaches. When he steals a coveted doll from a museum, he glimpses another self, a ‘dark and forbidden’ desire. Will the dwarf destroy his beloved queen? Or are he and Bramber still free to choose other fates? The Dollmaker purports to be ‘a love story about becoming real’, and perhaps it is, in its sad and mischievous way. But it is a story, too, about becoming unreal, about what we choose to see, even in dolls, when we ourselves have gone for too long unseen. Who will love us, after all, if not people just like us?