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The Magic Toyshop – Andy’s playtime holds a few surprises

October 15, 2011

Angela who? OK, that wasn’t quite my response when, at some point last year, Netty suggested we read an Angela Carter book in 2011. I think the name was probably, possibly, vaguely familiar. But unlike so many of the authors Netty and I have read over the past few years she certainly did not feature in my must-get-around-to-at-some-stage list. The very limited research I then did led me to believe that Carter wrote some weird-arsed feministy, fairtaley, supernaturally, postmodernisty bollocks that would make me spew in my Weetbix if I was the kind of person that ate Weetbix. Which I’m not. Any more. Not for a couple of decades, actually. But you get the gist.

The first few sentences of The Magic Toyshop read thus:

“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.”

“Penetrating the moist richness of her secret valleys”? Blech. Though I suppose the above is slightly superior to “groped me tits and fingered me snatch”, which is essentially what’s happening. I think. As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m not real familiar with the female form. Not intimately, anyway. And isn’t Mungo Park in New South Wales? Just askin’.

These opening sentences did not fill me with confidence. They made me look for a bowl of Weetbix in which to upchuck. The rest of the first chapter, in which Melanie tramps around the garden wrecking her mother’s wedding dress before discovering that her parents are dead, lifted my expectations slightly but I did not approach chapter two with anything resembling enthusiasm.

Silly me.

As it turns out The Magic Toyshop is a bit weird-arsed, and it is a bit feministy, and it is a bit fairytaley, and it is a bit postmodernisty (although it’s not, surprisingly given the title, supernaturally). And it’s also a thoroughly entertaining and engaging and intellectually stimulating and thought-provoking read. Fuck me! Who’d have thunk it?

I’m not sure that it means anything but it’s interesting that the first three chapters open quite oddly, poetically perhaps. Obtusely, even. The last six chapters on the other hand open far more prosaically. This meant I was slightly surly with the novel until I was well into it – chapter 3 opens with a very Sleeping Beautyish reference to a hedge of roses and thorns, whereas chapter 4’s opening paragraph specifies where the household’s different meals are eaten. The book is strewn with the stuff of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen and others no doubt, and for the most part it’s integrated impressively, if not seamlessly, into the story. Freudian reading of fairytales, the Grimm stories in particular, play an important role in Carter’s thinking – teenage girls, and blood, and oppressive older men. And stuff.

As I’ve said I was expecting some kind of supernatural element to the story – toys that come alive, perhaps. Was Melanie to fall madly in love with a Tonka truck carved by her evil uncle for the nefarious purpose of seducing her? Er, no. It is described, however, as a gothic novel and that’s absolutely accurate. From the early scene where Melanie stalks the family garden by moonlight in her mother’s wedding dress, to the final catastrophic scenes (no spoilers this time sweetie, you’ll have to read it yourself), the story is drenched in the stuff of gothic. A mute aunt; a hard-hearted, wicked, sick-fuck uncle; puppets that disturb and distress without actually doing anything; an abandoned park peppered with broken statues; even, believe it or not, a manky bathroom with no hot water – all of these things, and many others, contribute to an atmosphere of dread and wonder.

The depiction of the uncle was a little disappointing, I have to admit. The initial description of him – an odd, indecipherable presence in a photo from the wedding of Melanie’s parents – suggested to me that perhaps he’d be a Willy Wonka type character, a little threatening perhaps, distant and aloof, but also mesmerising, seductively, dangerously fascinating. No such luck. The man a prick, a sick twisted arsehole, a sexist, sadistic pig of a man. There are elem ents of his character that are interesting but ultimately he’s just repulsive, and that was a bit of a letdown.

The Magic Toyshop was only Carter’s second novel, written when she was in her mid-20s. She died 25 years later, rather too young. I am still a little suspicious of what she was up to with her fiction but I wouldn’t be surprised if I get around to reading some more of her work before I tackle Pamuk or Gibson again. She hasn’t quite reeled me in. But she’s hooked me.

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