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The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

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

by Angela Carter

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1,368375,605 (3.85)141
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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Showing 1-5 of 37 (next | show all)
The Magic Toyshop was chosen by my very small book group as our November read, and I was quite simply delighted by it. This, was something of a surprise, because I am never very sure about novels which I think vaguely of as being ‘a bit odd.’ I put Angela Carter in the same category as Barbara Comyns – (rightly or wrongly), two writers I have only read once before, and have skirted around ever since. Some years ago, I read The Bloody Chamber stories – for another book group, and I did like it (though it is a bit odd).

The Magic Toyshop is fantastically imagined, brilliantly written, with intensity and a wonderful dream like quality. Characters and situations are instantly memorable, and it is a book I can imagine reading again. The writing is so beautiful, descriptions are simply glorious, I look forward to reading it again one day so I can fully appreciate them.

“Melanie let herself into the night and it snuffed out her daytime self at once, between two of its dark fingers.
The flowers cupped in the garden with a midnight, un-guessable sweetness, and the grass rippled and murmured in a small voice that was an intensification of silence. The stillness was like the end of the world. She was alone. In her carapace of white satin, she was the last, the only woman. She trembled with exaltation under the deep, blue, high arc of sky.”

Melanie is fifteen years old, the eldest of three siblings, she has a good life in her family home with its lovely garden, bedrooms to spare a Shetland pony and her happy parents. Her father, a writer, is at last enjoying some real success, and Melanie has grown up in a house that smells of money. While her parents are away the children are cared for by Mrs Rundle, who makes lots of bread pudding and has an obese cat.

At fifteen, Melanie is beginning to discover something of her sexuality, she’s curious, growing up fast, a child awakening, with her beloved Edward Bear never far away. One day she tries her mother’s wedding dress on and goes outside into the garden late at night, finding herself locked out of the house. She is forced to scramble awkwardly up a tree to her bedroom, ripping the dress in the process.

“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.”

Melanie is dismayed at the damage to her mother’s dress, feels like a foolish child, who will one day soon need to confess to what she’s done. However, the very next day a telegram arrives, and Melanie knows instantly what it contains, her parents have been killed. Melanie and her siblings are sent to live with relatives of her mother’s, Uncle Philip – who Melanie has only seen in an old wedding photograph – and his family in London.

To Melanie, this is not the London she has imagined London to be, and Uncle Philip is not the Uncle Philip of the photograph. Uncle Philip has a toyshop, there’s a puppet theatre in the basement, and Uncle Philip creates life size puppets which he cares for obsessively while seeming to hate everyone in the house. The household consist of red haired Aunt Margaret – struck dumb on her wedding day, cowed by her bullying husband and her two younger brothers Finn, who dances while the almost silent Francie, plays his music – at night, while Philip is out. Loving, gentle Aunt Margaret, loves Melanie and her siblings, particularly little Victoria, while Jonathon seems strangely self-sufficient.

At first Melanie is horribly alone and slightly disgusted by this strange new world, a dilapidated, dirty house and the two red haired Irish brothers, themselves none too clean, and her strangely silent aunt who communicates by scribbling on a pad. In time, Melanie find she loves her aunt, Finn and Francie, gradually becoming part of their world, she allies herself with them against the villainous Philip. She longs to give Aunt Margaret a present for Christmas, though none of them have any money, and Philip has no interest in celebrating Christmas.

Melanie finds herself drawn to Finn, though she is sometimes afraid of him too – not quite ready for the feelings he awakens in her.

“Everything went black in the shocking folds of his embrace. She was very startled and near to sobbing.
‘Caw, caw,’ echoed his raincoat.
‘Don’t be frightened,’ he said. ‘It is only poor Finn, who will do you no harm.’
She recovered herself a little, though she was still trembling. She could see her own face reflected in little in the black pupils of his subaqueous eyes. She still looked the same. She saluted herself. He was only a little taller than she and their eyes were almost level. Remotely, she wished him three inches taller. Or four. She felt the warm breath from his wild beast’s mouth softly, against her cheek. She did not move. Stiff, wooden, and unresponsive, she stood in his arms and watched herself in his eyes. It was a comfort to see herself as she thought she looked.”

Uncle Philip is a terrifying presence, his rages and his rules, oppress the strange little household, where his puppets take precedence. Uncle Philip draws his family into the stories he creates with his puppets, later after weeks of ignoring her presence in the household, he insists that Melanie take a starring role in a particularly disturbing story. Something has to give, and Finn takes drastic action.

The Magic Toyshop has elements of a Gothic fairy-tale, a coming of age tale and quirky romance, it’s compelling, disturbing and charming all at once.

I absolutely loved this book, I hope you can tell (this review is being written much faster than usual – it might be one of those weeks!) and I would love to explore more Angela Carter. ( )
1 vote Heaven-Ali | Nov 20, 2016 |
Quite good, but not quite my bag. I wanted to give it three stars, but that would be a personal reaction rather than an attempt at objectivity. It's good. It's the old mistreated orphan and other poorly-favored poor folk story that Dickens was king of, but with other elements.

The other elements? Realism, magical realism (kind of surprisingly), and crude truthfulness about human nature and about adolescence. ( )
  valzi | Sep 7, 2016 |
exquisite prose
By sally tarbox on 27 Sept. 2012
Format: Paperback
Utterly readable, magical tale in a surreal world (puts me somewhat in mind of Barbara Comyns' writing).
The novel opens with Melanie becoming aware of her approaching adulthood, dancing in the night time garden in her mother's wedding dress:
'Melanie let herself into the night and it snuffed out her daytime self at once, between two of its dark fingers...Trees laden to the plimsoll-line with a dreaming cargo of birds.'
But a sudden change of circumstances sees her and her siblings forced to live with the horrible Uncle Philip and his mute Irish wife and her two brothers. Uncle Philip's profession and passion is toymaking, specifically his lifesize puppets.
Amid the cold and gloom, Melanie forms a tentative friendship with Finn...
I found the ending rather abrupt with a lot of unanswered questions, but this is far outweighed by Ms Carter's brilliant writing style. ( )
  starbox | Jul 10, 2016 |
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 |
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Angela Carterprimary authorall editionscalculated
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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