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 clichéd 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.Reviewed at:
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.
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