Saturday 14 November 2015

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Natasha Pulley (2015)

The latest novel I read as part of my neo-Victorian series was Natasha Pulley’s remarkable debut, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street – a fantastical tale of time manipulation, terrorist bombings, and – er – a Gilbert and Sullivan libretto – published this year.

Pulley’s novel has garnered a fair amount of attention – and has significant appeal at shelf, due to David Mann’s beautiful cover design. But my feelings as a reader, when I reached the end, were a little mixed.

What I loved

The setting: London is at the heart of Victorian literature and, up until now, this has been the case for much neo-Victorian literature too. But The Watchmaker of Filigree Street isn’t just about London. Several chapters take place in nineteenth-century Japan – a fascinating setting I haven’t seen dealt with much before. I thought it was really smart how Pulley chose to write a story linking both locales, allowing her to play on tropes of Victorian London, while introducing something new.

The octopus: A Maths textbook I had as a child featured a robotic cat sidekick I longed to adopt. In The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, the eponymous watchmaker, Keita Mori, has a mechanical octopus, which had a similar effect on me. The octopus isn’t sentient. It runs on randomised gears, making its actions unpredictable (a crucial element in the intricate plot). But it is undoubtedly one of the novel’s best characters, surprising and amusing us from its first appearance to its last. The choice of an octopus is also a fun nod to the neo-Victorian/steampunk aesthetic.

Character diversity: Pulley’s characters aren’t all male, straight and white. Yes, this should be a given, but sadly it’s not - and it was refreshing to see a writer choosing a diverse cast, but making them act and face obstacles in ways that feels believable for the time period (it’s 1883).

The complexity: As with much sci-fi and fantasy dealing with the question of time, Pulley’s plot takes some puzzling over, but she definitely pulls it off. She has a gift for complex descriptions and explanations, and is able to maintain a lay reader’s interest even when writing of mathematics, telegraphy, or musical theory.

Natasha Pulley

What disappointed me

The pacing: Sadly, the early stages of the novel drag. The protagonist, Thaniel Steepleton, leads a monotonous life, moving between his grim lodgings and dull civil service job. While it’s definitely important to establish Thaniel’s world before we are introduced to the oddities of Mori’s shop – flocks of mechanical birds, test tubes of magical rain – there definitely could have been some cuts here, and you may find it slow going for the first 80 pages.

Characters/Relationships: Another reason the octopus was the most appealing character was because the others were a little infuriating. Mori I liked, but Thaniel was hard to warm to and Grace Carrow – another POV character – had few redeeming features. Grace was the most disappointing feature of the book. A female physicist smart enough to dupe Mori, who has powers allowing him to affect the future, should have been a wonderful addition, but I was frequently baffled by her motivations. The novel’s main romantic relationship also comes out of nowhere, which is a shame, as so much of a romantic subplot comes from the will they/won’t they drama – which could have been really effective here.

The Irish context: The inciting incident in the plot is an attack on Scotland Yard by Irish Republican group Clan na Gael and I was really interested in how Pulley was going to weave the Irish political situation in the 1880s into her story. However, unlike the Japanese portions, those sections dealing with the Irish threat rang less true and didn’t feel so well researched.

Have you read The Watchmaker of Filigree Street? I would love to know what you thought! Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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