‘Watchmaker’ Runs Like Clockwork
It’s taken a long time for critics to realise that some of the finest writing in the world is – and always has been – fantasy literature, and that it takes many forms, from, say, John Crowley’s ‘Little, Big’ to Natsume Soseki’s ‘I Am A Cat’. But how do you attract the right readership? It’s easy to see the demographic strategy behind cover art, and to dismiss a great many authors on the strength of their marketing.
I almost made this mistake with Natasha Pulley’s ‘The Watchmaker of Filigree Street’. Its cover of cogs, watches, bombs, fireworks and an octopus fits the current design shorthand for fantasy and suggested whimsey, steampunk and something like ‘The Shadow of the Wind’, which I have failed to finish on many dull weekends.
I needn’t have worried. Ms Pulley has created something rather wonderful, closer perhaps to Susanna Clarke’s ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’, without the scale but with something more desirable – warmth.
It’s 1883 and Home Office telegraphist Thaniel Steepleton is left a watch that subsequently saves his life in a Fenian bomb attack in Whitehall. Tracing the maker, he meets Keita Mori, whose passion for clockwork fascinates Thaniel and puzzles him – how could Mori have known about the terrorist act unless he was involved?
Meanwhile, in Oxford, Grace is investigating the properties of ether (a popular fantasy trope beautifully explored by Ian R MacLeod in ‘The Light Ages’), but even as the trio are drawn together in their desire to unravel the mysteries of rippling time it proves impossible to see where their loyalties lie, or where the tale is going.
Beneath a chased casing of elliptical prose is the hidden machinery of plot. This means the book takes a while to wind itself up before releasing its spring, and because we can’t see where it’s heading a leap of faith is required by the reader. (Clockwork analogies aside, I did wonder what was powering these devices – blame being raised on ‘Blue Peter’.)
However, something clever is going on here. Ms Pulley keeps the sense of threat masked by a wonderful lightness of touch; far from having the rigidity of clockwork, the tale trips along paths that touch on Japanese culture (this being the time of the great oriental-import craze in London) and, delightfully, a meeting with Gilbert and Sullivan on the eve of the Mikado.
The signs of the times are all in place; Japan teeters on the edge of its transformation from the Floating Island to western-obsessed efficiency, wintry London is still lagged in class and bureaucracy. Outright fantasy is largely avoided (there’s one weather-in-a-bottle invention that pushes it, yet even this doesn’t quite overstep the mark) and sustains a level of credible incredibility that only the best fantasy writers are able to pull off. Being believable isn’t the litmus test of fantasy, of course, but it means that the more fantastical leaps we’re required to take as readers finally become possible.
Page by page, the prose offers enormous pleasures. The characters are quick-witted, complex and so essentially decent that you really want to spend time with them. Period speech is skipped in favour of modern language (with the odd Americanism, like ‘elevator’) and its enigmatic themes are rarely approached front-on, giving the whole enterprise a lateral, louche air. In keeping with the book’s subjective view of time, memory and predestination a number of key scenes fit themselves together in their aftermath. The result is an exquisitely constructed puzzle-book that should delight many.
Remarkably, this is a debut novel. There’s one more trick up its author’s sleeve; Ms Pulley has left us no clue to where she goes from here, but I and many others will be watching.