Everyone wants their toys to come to life when they’re children. Or perhaps what we actually want is for our toys to become lifelike. The reality of toys having their own minds, becoming sentient beings, is perhaps a darker proposition. And this novel, like all good tales brushed with a fairytale quality, certainly does have its darker side.
In the opening chapter we’re invited by our narrator to wander along the aisles of the fantastical Emporium, a world created by toymakers Papa Jack and his two sons, Emil and Kasper. Even in 1917, when the reality of the war is known, there is still room for a sense of magic when the Emporium opens its doors at the first frost of winter.
If, at a certain hour on a certain winter night, you too had been wandering the warren between New Bond Street and Avery Row, you might have seen it for yourself. One moment there would be darkness, only the silence of shops shuttered up and closed for business. The next, the rippling snowflakes would part to reveal a mews you had not noticed before – and, along that mews, a storefront garlanded in lights.
We then move back to 1906, when a young woman steps into Papa Jack’s Emporium in response to a job advert, seeking security for herself and her unborn child. Cathy joins Papa Jack’s loyal workforce, and then his family, working each winter to create a magical environment of toys and enchantments. But, like Papa Jack’s own personal history, there is always a darkness lurking, and we know what the boys playing with toy soldiers in 1906 must face a decade later. This is a tale of sibling rivalry, magic, and that bittersweet feeling of loss felt when we look back on our childhoods. Dinsdale asks us to suspend our disbelief and step into a convincingly-created world where the impossible is seemingly possible, and where space and appearance can be manipulated.
Comparisons to Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus are apt, and the development of the central relationships were at once both fascinating and often heartbreaking. I wasn’t quite so convinced by some of the moments featuring a specific wooden soldier (I’ll avoid saying any more in order to avoid spoilers) later in the plot, but ultimately this is a novel of surprisingly big ideas about humanity and childhood, and I enjoyed it very much.