“Unclassifiable” can be such a lovely thing. It’s easy to understand why we’re always in such a rush to put stories into a genre, and then a sub-genre, whether you’re a publisher, reviewer or a fan, but there’s something quite wonderful about taking a step into an uncertain world. Especially when you’re in the hands of someone as capable as Nina Allan.
While her last two novels, The Race and The Rift, could be classed as science fiction without too much of a stretch, The Dollmaker is something quite different. There’s more than a touch of Angela Carter to it, for sure, but Allan is absolutely not limiting herself to one touchstone here. It’s a fascinating blend that seems so varied that it’s initially hard to see if and how it’s all going to come together, but as the story progresses it becomes clear that there have been connective threads woven throughout. When it they begin to intertwine it’s really rather magical.
Our leading characters are Andrew Garvie and Bramber Winters, two lonely souls who begin writing letters to each other after discovering a shared passion for dolls. He has made them his life work and has become a successful artist, and she is planning a book on the life of Ewa Chaplin, a renowned dollmaker and author. As Andrew realises that the remote home on Bodmin Moor where Bramber lives is actually an institution, he sets out on a journey to visit and possibly rescue his beloved, all without telling her, while reading Chaplin’s short stories.
But what are the secrets lurking in Bramber’s past which led her to her current state? Is Andrew’s quest a romantic endeavour or a rash and doomed act? And why do so many elements in Chaplin’s tales strike such a personal chord with him?
Structurally, The Dollmaker is neatly split between three narratives. There’s Andrew’s first-person narration as he relates his journey and tells us about his life growing up with dwarfism and struggling to find his place in the world. There are Bramber’s letters to Andrew, gradually building towards revealing her dark secret and finally there are the Chaplin short stories. Initially it’s the latter which feels a little jarring, jolting us out of our growing intimacy with the two characters, but it doesn’t take too long to settle into the book’s rhythm. The stories also allow Allan to dabble in different sub-genres, from opulent doomed romance to modern fairy tales to creepy kid horror and, as previously mentioned, each begins to hold an increasingly powerful sway over the plot.
The author is also clearly having fun playing with the traditional quest narrative as Arthur ventures out of London towards the coast, enduring dull train journeys, sleepy villages and a string of B&Bs as he draws ever closer to his maiden in the tower.
However, while the form certainly does impress, it’s the two characters at The Dollmaker’s centre that make it such a compelling and endearing read. They’re both remarkably open, if not always immediately forthcoming, allowing us a window into their worldview, their problems and their past trauma with a surprising honesty. Allan offers the narrative skill we’ve come to expect, accompanied by a real tenderness and heart but it’s never sentimental.