Thursday, 21 March 2013

Angela Carter's "The Magic Toyshop" (book review)

I love YA books.  I love how teen protagonists fall so perfectly into that golden zone where they are still young and energetic, but also have a surprising amount of freedom that allows them to get involved in all kinds of crazy adventures.  However, too many YA books in a row is a lot like living off a diet of junk food.  It's really sweet at first, until it becomes too much of a good thing.  Once your vocabulary begins to slide and the brain starts to atrophy, you have to read "real" literature for a while.

And that doesn't mean you have to go subject yourself to Rushdie or Dostoevsky or some other similarly obtuse and overwhelming work.  Coming out of a YA tear is a great time to pick up an old favorite author who you've meant to revisit, but you've just been so busy with The Hunger Games.
So to get out of my YA rut, I turned to Angela Carter.  Angela Carter was a writer of poetry, short stories, magical realist and feminist fiction and children's books, who unfortunately passed away quite young, at the age of only 51.  She was active as a novelist from 1966 until her death in 1992.  I'd only read one of Carter's works before, and it was Nights at the Circus.  I absolutely LOVED it, so I figured that Carter would be good for another shot.  From Carter's substantial repertoire, I  selected The Magic Toyshop.

Splendid creepy reading.
 The Magic Toyshop self-describes (on it's back cover) as a "gothic novel".  Now let me be honest and say that I honestly had no clue what that meant.  Thanks to the power of Google, I looked it up, and it turns out that a gothic novel is one which combines horror and romance.  Which is a remarkably accurate description of this book.  The protagonist is a teen girl, who after a midnight misadventure in the garden finds herself suddenly and unexpectedly orphaned.  With her well-to-do parents gone, Melanie and her siblings are sent to live with their icy giant of an uncle, Phillip, along with his silent wife Margaret and her two brothers Finn and Francie.  Things quickly get scary and WEIRD for Melanie, as magical realism elements start to kick in she discovers the monstrous manipulations of her uncle upon his family.  As Melanie registers as a target for Phillip's wrath, she also inadvertently proves to be the catalyst which drives massive changes for the family.

This is not a story for the faint of heart.  Many awful things befall the family, right up to the very end of the story (which I really can't give away, but it is a heck of an ending).  But interlaced in the terrible events are moments of tenderness between Melanie, Margaret and Finn which show the reader a new definition of what makes a family, and how people react when placed in dire circumstances.  Carter has such magnificent control of the English language, her prose is much closer to poetry.  Lyrical phrasing and distinct imagery combine to give the reader a very authentic experience.  And in a book which moves at quite a slow pace, Carter's masterful writing drags the reader in, and makes this book almost impossible to put down.

Fans of Margaret Atwood would almost certainly enjoy The Magic Toyshop.  I would also recommend this work highly to fans of magical realism in the vein of Banana Yoshimoto, or to anyone who enjoys a lyrical, engaging work of fiction.


  1. Great review! I can relate to getting burnt out on YA. I love it, but I wouldn't ever want to only read it. I've only read Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and other stories, but I loved it, and have been meaning to check out more. This is a great reminder to do just that!

  2. Thanks a lot for this review! I really enjoyed reading it. I totally agree that Carter uses the English language very well and her prose is like poetry :)