Apr 14, 2010

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

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 shoulderblades. 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.
Isn’t that a stunning opening passage? It’s possibly one of my new favourites, as well as one of the most thrilling and beautiful celebrations of puberty and sexuality I’ve ever come across. The Magic Toyshop is a coming-of-age story – one that is very much structured like a fairy tale, even if devoid of any outright fantastic elements (which is actually also the case with many original fairy tales). Melanie, our orphaned heroine, is sent to live in London with her Uncle Philip along with her siblings Victoria and Jonathon. None of them have ever met their uncle before; all they know is that he’s a toymaker, and that he once sent Melanie a Jack-in-a-box that very much frightened her.

In London, they find a house of silences and secrets that Melanie repeatedly compares to Bluebeard’s Castle. Tyrannical Uncle Philip has literally silenced his wife Maggie ever since their wedding day. The other inhabitants of the house are Finn and Francie, Maggie’s brothers, who alternatively fascinate and repulse Melanie. In this strange house, Melanie learns to negotiate her awakening sexuality and the frightening world of interpersonal relationships, and also begins her discovery of who she is.

What impressed me the most about the initial chapters of The Magic Toyshop was the sense of exuberance; the celebratory, unapologetic sexuality that Melanie experiences when she’s on her own. I found this so refreshing and bold. How often are a teen girl’s first sexual feelings described in such positive and uncomplicated terms? However, there’s also a dark side to these feelings, one that is revealed once Melanie goes out into the world. The exuberance is toned down as the novel progresses, but only to be rekindled later on.

I love Carter for never portraying female sexuality as dangerous or threatening. The darkness and the danger I alluded to earlier only emerge when Melanie is faced with the uncertainties of interpersonal relationships, with gender politics, with people who want to use and control her newly found “flesh and blood”. Melanie herself, however, is absolutely never presented as a “temptress” or blamed for any of this. Angela Carter, I love you so.

As I was saying earlier, The Magic Toyshop is structured like a fairy tale, with an orphaned heroine going out into the world, meeting obstacles, and having to learn to navigate previously unexplored situations. There are also multiple allusions to fairy tales, myths and literary works: Bluebeard and his chamber, Mr Fox, Russian folktales, the myth of Leda and the Swan, and so on. Not to mention the fairy tale qualities to be found in the fantastic atmosphere surrounding the frightening Uncle Philip and his surreal puppets, and in darkness and sensuality of the text itself. This is one of the things I love the most about Carter’s work – the rich tapestry of literary references that she always packs her writing with is not there for its own sake. It’s there because she loves stories: she loves to tell them, to play with them, to have them comment on and enrich one another.

And then there is, of course, her language. As Claire and I were saying on Twitter the other day, the thrill of reading her prose is probably something you have to experience for yourself. And as clich├ęd as it sounds, I feel like I could get drunk on her language – it’s so daring, so celebratory even when at its darkest, so full of life. Angela Carter is one of a small number of writers that I think I could love for their prose alone. I enjoy beautiful writing as much as the next reader, but for an author to become a favourite of mine I also need to connect with what they say, obviously enough. But Angela Carter (and Jeffrey Eugenides, Truman Capote, Toni Morrison, Sarah Waters, Margo Lanagan) makes me suspect that I could read her sentences all day long simply for their own sake.

The Magic Toyshop is a beautifully written, slightly Gothic and surreal story about love and terror; about sexual awakenings; about tyranny and small forms of resistance and protest. I know that like me, many of you are planning to read it for Angela Carter month, and I cannot wait to compare notes. Especially because of the ending – it’s not that I disliked it, but I remain unsure of what to make of it. If you’ve read it too, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Other bits I liked:
Behind the doors (which doors?) slept, at nights, Aunt and Uncle, Francie, Finn. But not now, at this hour; who occupied the rooms in the daytime? Bluebeard’s castle, it was, or Mr Fox’s manor house with ‘Be bold, be bold, but not too bold’ written up over every lintel and chopped up corpses neatly piled in all the wardrobes and airing cupboards, on top of the sheets and pillowslips. Melanie knew she was unreasonable, that empty rooms and quiet beds lay all around her, but the fright was still there and her scared feet pattered with too loud a noise, waking echoes. On the kitchen landing, the dog sat staunchly at the top of the stairs, blocking her way with its back to her, apparently sunk in thought. It had an uncanny quality of whiteness, like Moby Dick. In the brown house, it glowed. She was very much startled.

His eyes were a curious grey green. His Atlantic-coloured regard went over Melanie like a wave; she submerged in it. She would have been soaked if it had been water. He touched the other man’s arm; at once he dropped his cup and they came towards her. And if one moved like the wind in branches, the other’s motion was a tower falling, a frightening, uncoordinated progression in which he seemed to crash forward uncontrollably at each stride, jerking himself stiffly upright and swaying for a moment on his heels before the next toppling step.
Reviewed at:
Verity’s Virago Venture
Another Cookie Crumbles
Lovely Treez Reads

(Let me know if I miss yours.)

34 comments:

  1. Thanks for the link! I've read 3 Angela Carter books now, and this is the one that I've enjoyed the most - I thought the language was fantastic and the plot gripping. I'll be interested to see how you get on with other Carter books.

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  2. I love Angela Carter. I think Black Venus is my favourite, but I never get tired of reading her. Shame she died so young.

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  3. Verity, you're most welcome! I've read quite a few to date (most in my pre-blogging days, Nights at the Circus more recently) and so far I have enjoyed them all. The Bloody Chamber is probably my favourite, but that's the fairy tales retold fangirl in me :P

    Violet: Black Venus is one of the ones I haven't yet read, but I must - I want to get to them all eventually. And yes, it's such a shame :\

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  4. I have to make a confession: I had never heard of Angela Carter before bookblogging and have never read anything by her. This sounds interesting though and I think I really want to give her a try. Is this the right book to start with, or should I pick up another title first?

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  5. At my university, we had a short story course and we briefly talked about Angela Carter's stories in The Bloody Chamber, and so it comes that I have read some of them and my favorite one is 'The Company of Wolves'. I am glad you liked this one. I will read more of this author as I really like what I have read so far. Great review!

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  6. I've seen the Angela Carter month thing on Claire's blog, but I have to admit I have no idea who Angela Carter is. I don't know if she's a contemporary writer or older, what country she's from, what kinds of books she writes...I suppose I ought to go look her up now...

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  7. I read this many years ago but I think I may have to revisit it. I remember loving this one and Wise Children and searching out her other books, only to find out that at my time of reading her books she has passed away. I remember feeling quite upset by this. I have just finished The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter for Claire's month of Angela Carter. I hope to review it by next week, but I am a bit behind with my reviews.

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  8. Beautiful review, Ana. I've been looking forward to reading it and it didn't disappoint. Of course now I want to go lose myself in a rereading of The Magic Toyshop, which has been an issue with this month as I don't have time to reread them all (and would be struggling with my sobriety if I did!)

    Have you read Wise Children? Another one that I think you would love.

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  9. The writing does sound magical, and the fact that the author celebrates female sexuality also sounds great. I am definitely going to be looking this book up.

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  10. This was a really excellent review. I just started reading The Bloody Chamber last night and was petrified! But it is so good. What a writer. All the foreshadowing and imagery is incredible. Can't wait to read more.

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  11. Fantastic review! I really enjoyed your discussion of Carter's no-hold bars examination of sexuality. I find her writing so visceral and somewhat sinister, but with in a playful way. She was great at taking things that make us uncomfortable and taking them to the extremes.

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  12. This is my favorite Carter novel. I've read it twice and now I want to read it again!

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  13. What a great review! It sounds like this book is really unique in the way it deals with puberty and sexuality and that really perks up my interest. I wonder if it would be appropriate to give to my teenage daughter. I would love for her to read about a view of sexuality as a wondrous and amazing thing, as opposed to something that is shameful and secretive. I might have to grab a copy of this book and try it out for myself first. Thanks for the wonderful review Nymeth. It sounds like a one of a kind read!

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  14. I think thanks to you I bought two Angela Carter books not long ago! I haven't started them, shame on me I know, but really look forward to finally discovering this author.

    On a superficial note, aren't her book covers great? The books I have also have the same style and I just love them.

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  15. I really want to read more from Angela Carter but the library doesn't have anything. I will have to buy more from her eventually.

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  16. Wow! After your review and some of the comments, I feel like I must read some of Angela Carter's work.

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  17. YAY! So glad you liked this one as Claire is sending me a copy of it! I agree about that opening paragraph- very powerful!

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  18. Thank you for another splendid review - of another of my favourite writers.... Her use of language was just brilliant - so powerful and evocative without ever being simpering somehow. My favourite is "Wise Children"

    Hannah

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  19. You're not adding to my wish list this time, LOL! I recently purchased The Magic Toyshop and hope to get started in the next week or so. Great review, as usual.

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  20. I've been wanting to read some Angela Carter for awhile now. Sounds like a good place to start with this one! It really sounds like a wonderful tale that I would really like...and I do love that opening passage.

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  21. That opening passage...wow. The whole book sounds incredible actually. I've never read Carter before, only even first heard of her since blogging. Sometimes it's just so frustrating knowing all that I've been missing...and yet it's also sort of exhilarating thinking about all I have left to discover.

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  22. I'll compare notes with you when I get to read it next week!! But so good to hear so many wonderful things from you. I don't know really what to expect from her. I mean, I know what to expect of her language based on yours and Claire's (and others') posts, but not really. You know what I mean. :D

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  23. Iris: I think this would be a good introduction, yes. If you prefer short stories, then I'd recommend The Bloody Chamber.

    Andreea: The Company of Wolves is amazing! Have you seen the film? It's excellent too!

    Amanda: I'd fill you in, but I saw that Claire did on Twitter :P

    Vivienne: It was such a pity that she died to young :\ Who knows what other amazing books she'd have written otherwise.

    Claire: I haven't - other than this, Nights at the Circus and The Passion of New Eve, only Dr. Hoffman and the short stories. I think the fact that she died so young made me want to "save" her books for much longer than I'd have otherwise. I saw Steph's review of Wise Children today and it definitely sounds amazing.

    Amy: It's so rare to come across a passage as celebratory as this one!

    pickygirlfoodfilmfiction: Thank you so much! The Bloody Chamber is one of my very favourite short story collections. I hope you'll enjoy it!

    Steph: Yes, I love her playfulness! I think it's a nice counterbalance to the often uncomfortable nature of her writing. She was truly one of a kind.

    Amanda: I'm sure I'll be revisiting it as well :)

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  24. I can always count on you to recommend something that is out of my traditional reading comfort zone. I'm adding this to Goodreads TBR right now!

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  25. Zibilee: While there's nothing very explicit in the novel, I'd recommend reading it yourself first simply because I'm not sure how much you're comfortable with your daughter reading, and the story takes a bit of an... unconventional turn at the end. I can't say much more without spoiling it for you; sorry!

    Iliana, I think you're going to like her :) I look forward to your thoughts on them. And yes, I love these covers too!

    Kailana, you need to get your hands on The Bloody Chamber! It's right up your alley.

    Kathy, I hope you'll enjoy it when you do :)

    Aarti, I can't wait to hear what you think!

    Hannah Stoneham: As I was telling Claire, I haven't yet read Wise Children and must rectify that as soon as possible!

    JoAnn: Thank you! I can't wait to hear your thoughts on this.

    Christina: I think so too!

    Chris: Either this or The Bloody Chamber...they're both excellent really, but I think The Bloody Chamber is actually more you!

    Debi: I know - I try to focus on the exhilarating bit, though :P I think you and Chris should read The Bloody Chamber together. You know you want to!

    Claire: I do :D I can't wait to hear what you think!

    Kathleen: You know, I've been mentally making a list of fairy tales/fantasy for you, and her book The Bloody Chamber would be perfect!

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  26. I've only read one book by Angela Carter, but I really liked it. I'll be on the lookout for this one!

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  27. OH ok!! I had The Bloody Chamber on my list too!! Maybe I'll go with that first then :D

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  28. I love, love, love Angela Carter, but haven't read this one yet. The quotes you included make me want to unearth it from my piles of books and dive right it. You should read Wise Children; it's my favorite by her, of the ones I've read so far. It's amazing!

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  29. We seem to love the same authors :D (talking about Jeffrey Eugenides and Truman Capote). I'm reading The Bloody Chamber right now and I'm liking it. Lucky I won The Magic Toyshop from Claire so I'll be able to read this in near future!

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  30. Sounds very good Nymeth, great review as usual. And the cover is beautiful.
    http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

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  31. I love Angela Carter - but I haven't read this one yet. It's on my list now - thanks!

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  32. This sounds fascinating. I definitely think sexuality should not be something women are shamed for having, so I like the idea that this book celebrates that. And, yay I can get it through interlibrary loan.

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  33. I like your review, I think it's pretty fair and is quite attractive for those who haven't given Angela a try yet! So far, I've only read The Magic Toyshop but as soon as I have time I'd love to get me some more Carter.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.