The Dollmaker by Nina Allan

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.

The Dollmaker (Riverrun, £14.99)

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?

The Heavens by Sandra Newman

This review originally appeared in The Irish Times.

When Kate and Ben first meet, all is not just well with the world but extravagantly well. It is the year 2000, but rebooted, ‘a year when you opened the newspaper like opening a gift’. Here the president is an Asian-American woman; carbon emissions are in decline; there is peace in the Middle East. They fall in love extravagantly too, quoting from Apollinaire as they ascend to a Manhattan roof garden. Gazing at Kate as she sleeps, Ben is ‘in her absolute and permanent thrall’.

In these utopian scenes, and throughout Sandra Newman’s new novel, there is an exquisitely calibrated strangeness. We confront both a recognisable New York, where wealthy socialites cultivate bohemian darlings, and a counterfactual fairyland, outlandishly benign but expertly tricked out. It’s plausible, just about. And it’s heartbreaking. Because here in 2019, opening the newspaper is like abseiling into the Ninth Circle. We can’t deal with this right now. We all have anxiety.

A view of Times Square from 42nd Street (photograph © Paraic O’Donnell, 2017)

Luckily, everything is about to get worse, not least for Kate and Ben. Their first hours together are heady and rapturous, yet even as they recline on their balcony, there are faint intimations. The night sky is occluded, leaving them to sigh beneath ‘obsolete stars’. It’s a beautiful aside, but for lovers probably not a great sign. Worse than star-crossed, they are starless. The heavens are deserted.

Oh, and Kate has a question. ‘Do you remember your dreams?’ she says.

Dreams, it turns out, are kind of a thing with Kate. Among her friends it’s a running joke. She has learned to be circumspect. But they’re serious, these dreams. They’re important somehow. In her dreams, she is somewhere else, somewhere unaccountably familiar. But it’s not just that. She is someone else. ‘She knew the bed, the house, the great city. But it wasn’t Kate who knew them. It was the person she was sleeping as.’ In love, her dreams intensify. Within them she awakens, or someone does. We glimpse this person, in passages of miraculously skilful exposition, recognisably, then unmistakably.

Emilia Bassano (later Lanier), was England’s first published woman poet. By some accounts the ‘dark lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets, she has long been the subject of scholarly tussling. Here she chews up the pages. Thwarted prodigy and reluctant courtesan, she is subtle, guileful and fiercely alive. It is 1593, a plague year, and London’s courtiers are in exile. Emilia takes refuge at Cowdray, seat of the Earl of Southhampton (himself the ‘fair youth’ of the sonnets) and a household humid with intrigue. As the mistress of the Lord Chamberlain, she is courted by players in want of patronage. Among these is ‘Sad Will’, a lugubrious striver with a handful of plays to his name. Guess who.

If Newman treats Tudor England like she owns the place, it’s because she evidently does.

Readers are often impatient with dream sequences, expecting six or seven pages of portentous italics that need not detain them. Emilia’s sections are no mere distractions, but form a glittering centrepiece which, as an exercise in historical fiction, could easily have stood alone. Newman has business elsewhere, but if she treats Tudor England like she owns the place, it’s because she evidently does. She is simply unerring, deeply read and possessed of a phenomenal ear for diction. She is judicious, though, and sparing with her prithees. The loveliest passages have an unmannered grace, as when Emilia joins a hunt, ‘her heart stooping as the hawk stooped and arrowed from the sky to pluck a fleeing hare’.

But Emilia’s life is not just immersively real, it is vastly consequential. At Cowdray, she and Sad Will chafe at their enforced idleness, exchanging barbs and sneaking away for trysts. He longs for London, where his stage stands empty, but Emilia is troubled by the prospect. A vision recurs. She sees a dead world, ‘a burnt Manhattan, its abandoned towers scabbed with dirt and ice’.

There is something she must do.

In a celebrated story from 1952, Ray Bradbury imagined a time traveller who crushes a butterfly in the Cretaceous period and returns to find a fascist occupying the White House. Like that could ever happen. At first Emilia’s interventions have subtle repercussions – Kate wakes to ‘anomalies, discrepancies, attacks of jamais vu’ – but then things get worse. Much worse. As the catastrophes pile up, Kate is still anxiously checking whether people have heard of Shakespeare. The thing with Kate, at this point, is that she seems to be nuts.

We get it, though. Kate is all of us. How can people be burning oil still? How can that guy be president? The calamities of our age, in this novel, are also an intricate drama of moral philosophy. Like all dramas, it has a resolution, and one of such eye-popping metaphysical grandeur that I couldn’t spoil it even if I wanted to. The Heavens consoles us with the magnificence of our capacities, but in the end it leaves us in no doubt. Sure, we are such stuff as dreams are made on, but it doesn’t look good for the great globe itself.