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The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

"The Magic Toyshop" (original 1967; edition 2009)

by Angela Carter

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1,337335,791 (3.83)137
Title:"The Magic Toyshop"
Authors:Angela Carter
Info:Virago Press (2009), Hardcover
Collections:Your library, Read

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The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)


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I was lucky to discover Angela Carter’s writing at a very young age, not long after I had started to read grown-up books.

I spotted a book named ‘The Magic Toyshop’ on a paperback carousel in the library. What was such a thing doing on the shelves for grown-ups? And why did it have a dark green cover, that looked like a classic, but not the sort of classic I had ever seen before?

I picked the book up, I began to read, and what I read was extraordinary. It was like nothing I had read before and it did things that I didn’t know books could do. After that I read every book by Angela Carter that I could lay my hands on, and I picked up more of those books with dark green covers – Virago Modern Classics – hoping to find more intriguing books and more oh so special authors.

And so it was Angela Carter who set me on a path of picking up books bearing unknown titles and unfamiliar author names, hoping to find more magic ….

I had nothing new to read for Angela Carter Week, but I had lots of books that I might revisit, to see what I might find in them with more experience of books and of life behind me. It seemed natural to start again with that first book, to revisit ‘The Magic Toyshop’.

At its heart is a simple story. Melanie is fifteen years-old and she has a lovely life; her parents are happy and successful, she and her siblings are much loved, and they have a beautiful home in the country. But Melanie’s parents are killed in an accident and the three children are sent to live with unknown relations …

But it is clear from the start that this will be a coming of age story like no other.

Melanie’s sexuality is awakening. She is drawn to her mother’s wedding dress, to put it on, to go outside. But she finds herself locked out and she has to shed the dress, bundle it up, climb the apple tree to get back inside.

“She parcelled up the dress and stuck it in the fork of the tree. she could carry it up with her and put it away again in the trunk and no one would know it had been worn if they did not see the blood on the hem, and there was only a little blood. The cat put its head on one side and turned it sequin regard on the parcel; it stretched out its paddy paw and stroked the dress. Its paw was tipped with curved, cunning meat hooks. It had a cruel stroke. There was a ripping sound.”

And when she wakes the next morning she learns that her parents are dead.

Angela Carter painted that scene gloriously, in such rich colours, and there was so much that you could read into it. The whole story was like that; a coming of age story twisted into the most profound, dark, gothic drama.

Melanie found herself in a dilapidated house where her tyrannical uncle ruled over his mute, cowed wife, and her two young brothers. It was a magic toyshop, but it was also a house ruled by fear. Melanie had to learn to live with that, with dirt and poverty, with her feelings for her aunt’s brother, Finn.

Sometimes she was drawn to him – as he was to her – and sometimes she was repulsed by him.

Conflicts and contradictions like that were threaded through the story.

Angela Carter painted vivid pictures in rich colours, picking out the strangest details. Those pictures are utterly compelling, but they are also disturbing, and sometimes repellent.

The most dramatic pictures of all were of her uncle, his life-sized puppets, and the puppet shows he drew first his family and then Melanie into:

“Red plush curtains swung to the floor from a large, box-like construction at the far end of the room. Finn, masked, advanced and tugged a cord. The curtains swished open, gathering in swags at each side of a small stage, arranged as a grotto in a hushed, expectant woodland, with cardboard rocks. Lying face-downwards in a tangle of strings was a puppet five feet high, a sulphide in a fountain of white tulle, fallen flat down as if someone had got tired of her in the middle of playing with her, dropped her and wandered off. She had long, black hair down to the waist of her tight satin bodice.”

In the end something broke. It had to.

Melanie had tried to change things. But there were some things that she didn’t know, that she didn’t understand.

‘The Magic Toyshop’ touches on some difficult subjects, but the images, the ideas, the symbolism, the eccentricity are just so wonderful. It’s untidy though, not a book for those with delicate sensibilities, who like things neat and tidy.

But I can’t pick this book apart. I loved it the first time I read it and I still love it now.

The best way I have to explain its appeal is to confess that I typed ‘Alice’ instead of ‘Melanie’ more than once, because Melanie’s situation seemed so much like Alice’s when she tumbled down the rabbit hole.

It sounds mad, and yet it works …. ( )
1 vote BeyondEdenRock | May 11, 2016 |
Having just finished Carter's 'The Bloody Chamber,' her retellings of traditional fairy tales, I thought I'd read something else by her in order to have a basis for comparison.
The Magic Toyshop is, firstly, much more horrific and disturbing than the cute cover of this edition would lead one to expect. It's full of over-the-top elements of gothic grotesquerie - I can almost imagine the author, while writing, gleefully exclaiming, "oh yes! I know what will make this Even Worse!!!" - but it's very well written, and therefore emotionally very effective, even while one is saying, "well, that's a Bit Much!" Upon finishing it, I was left with a creeping, disturbed feeling - which is the sign of a good horror novel.
However, I did have the same issue with it as I did with the stories in 'The Bloody Chamber,' which is that the characters are both emotionally opaque and oddly passive. Even when dramatic events occur, the reader doesn't get the sense that decisions have been made that set those events in motion. Instead, there is a sense that it was inevitable that events would unfold the way they did; that the characters do not have free will. Carter is too good a writer for this to be unintentional; perhaps it reflects her world view. Personally, however, I find it bothersome.
( )
  AltheaAnn | Feb 9, 2016 |
A very dark book ( )
  BookWormM | Jan 15, 2016 |
This is a very good Gothic novel, with wonderful prose, although it didn’t have much of the subversion of tropes that is sometimes found in Carter’s work. There aren’t really any magic realist elements either. However, there are plenty of dark and bizarre set pieces and twists, and the depiction of Melanie’s isolation and unhappiness at finding herself a Dickensian orphan in a repressed and uncomfortable household is excellent. I wasn’t completely on board with the resolution to a number of plot threads and the ending is rather abrupt, but overall this is another captivating Carter.

Melanie is on the cusp of adulthood and constantly thinking about love, marriage, and growing up. Her father, a successful author, and her mother are on a lecture tour of America while she and her brother and sister are at home. Her curiosity about sex and whether she is beautiful and Lady Chatterley’s Lover reaches a climax when she tries on her mother’s wedding gown and decides to wander around in it outside in the moonlight. This turns out to be not as romantic as she thinks. Almost immediately after, the children receive word that their parents have died in a plane crash and they are bundled off from their comfortable life to live with Uncle Philip, their mother’s brother, an eccentric toymaker. His wife, Aunt Margaret, is a sadly beaten down woman who doesn’t talk but frequently communicates with her eraseboard. Her two brothers also live with them – neat and quiet Francie, a fiddle player, and disheveled, sarcastic Finn who is learning the trade from Uncle Philip. Uncle Philip himself is largely absent from their day to day life, but he is an oppressive, menacing presence in the old house and his real passion – a puppet theater – becomes increasingly threatening to Melanie.

The writing is wonderfully evocative. A number of the setpieces – Melanie creeping around in the wedding dress, her hearing some night music, a walk with Finn to the ruined exposition grounds, a charged rehearsal and performance for the puppet theater - are memorably described and modern twists on Gothic tropes. However, I think my favorite passage was just a description of Aunt Margaret’s Sunday attire. Many of Carter’s other works are takes on fairy tales, and in this one, Uncle Philip is repeatedly compared to Bluebeard. But even with a few scenes that strain at the more realistic feel of the novel, besides the writing, the best part is the depiction of Melanie’s loneliness on losing her parents and leaving her home. Despite the fact that she has a brother and sister, she is still lonely. Jonathon has always been lost in the world of model shipbuilding and he continues that at their uncle’s house. Victoria is the baby and acts like one – she is immediately taken up by Aunt Margaret, who has no children. The little changes – the unpleasant bathroom – and significant ones – Uncle Philip’s violence and controlling attitude – both affect Melanie, and although they moved from the country to London, the family is even more isolated - the house and shop are dark, old, creaky and almost out of the 19th century. I didn’t especially care for Finn, who could be creepy but was also the object of Melanie's romantic thoughts, and thought some of his storyline was predictable. The ending is somewhat rushed and bizarre. Overall though an engrossing and well-written read. ( )
3 vote DieFledermaus | Apr 20, 2015 |
This, she told herself, was the harsh, unloving truth, the black, bitter bread of life; the tenderness of the lavish past was tenuous, insubstantial. Page 94

Melanie is the eldest of three children from a well to-do upper middle class family. The only life she and her siblings has ever known is changed overnight with the death of their mother and father overseas, leaving them penniless and orphans. They are sent to live with their strange uncle whom they have never met and life is not only vastly different from what the've known, it is filled with strange and mysterious happenings that defy explanations and understanding.

I'm not sure what to make of The Magic Toyshop in that I didn't find anything remotely close to magical in the story itself. Melanie is coming of age, discovering the world around her is perhaps more twisted than what she once thought, while at the same time, discovering that the stirrings and longings of a girl, soon to be a woman, is vastly more complicated that she could have imagined. I wasn't able to connect fully with the story or the characters despite some atmospheric charms, so rather than feeling satisfied, I'm left with a gnawing sense of confusion. ( )
  jolerie | Apr 8, 2015 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Angela Carterprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Baiocchi, MariaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Callil, CarmenIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The summer she was fifteen, Melanie discovered she was made of flesh and blood.
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Book description
From the cover: "This crazy world whirled about her, men and women dwarfed by toys and puppets, where even the birds were mechanical and the few human figures went masked... She was in the night again, and the doll was herself."
Melanie walks in the midnight garden, wearing her mother's wedding dress; naked she climbs the apple tree in the black of the moon. Omens of disaster, swiftly following, transport Melanie from rural comfort to London, to the Magic Toyshop.

To the red-haired, dancing Finn, the gentle Francie, dumb Aunt Margaret and Uncle Philip. Francie plays curious night music, Finn kisses fifteen-year-old Melanie in the mysterious ruins of the pleasure gardens. Brooding over all is Uncle Philip: Uncle Philip, with blank eyes the colour of wet newspaper, making puppets the size of men, and clockwork roses. He loves his magic puppets, but hates the love of man for woman, boy for girl, brother for sister...

In this, her second novel, (awarded the 1967 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize) Angela Carter's brilliant imagination and startling intensity of style explore and extend the nature and boundaries of love.
Haiku summary
Bluebeard's Castle hides
a puppeteer of humans
who defy their fate.

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One night Melanie walks through the garden in her mother's wedding dress. The next morning her world is shattered. Forced to leave the rural home of her childhood, she is sent to London to live with relatives she has never met.

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