Nina Allan's The Dollmaker was published by Quercus Books/Riverrun in April 2019.
Information about Nina Allan:
Nina Allan is a novelist and short story writer. Her previous fiction has won several prizes, including the British Science Fiction Award for Best Novel, the Novella Award and the Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire for Best Translated Work. She lives and works in Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute. The Dollmaker is her third novel.
Click here to visit her official website.
Information about The Dollmaker:
EWA CHAPLIN WASN'T AFRAID TO MAKE DOLLS THAT WEREN'T COMFORTING. SHE SEEMED TO KNOW THAT DOLLS ARE PEOPLE, JUST LIKE US.
THE BEWITCHING NEW NOVEL FROM THE AWARD-WINNING GUARDIAN FRESH VOICES AUTHOR
'A fantastic book' Andrew O'Hagan
'Wholly original - worthy of a modern Grimm' Andrew Caldecott, author of Rotherweird
'A masterful and multi-layered haunted toyshop of a novel' Tony White, author of The Fountain in the Forest
Stitch by perfect stitch, Andrew Garvie makes exquisite dolls in the finest antique style. Like him, they are diminutive, but graceful, unique and with surprising depths. Perhaps that's why he answers the enigmatic personal ad in his collector's magazine.
Letter by letter, Bramber Winters reveals more of her strange, sheltered life in an institution on Bodmin Moor, and the terrible events that put her there as a child. Andrew knows what it is to be trapped; and as they knit closer together, he weaves a curious plan to rescue her.
On his journey through the old towns of England he reads the fairytales of Ewa Chaplin - potent, eldritch stories which, like her lifelike dolls, pluck at the edges of reality and thread their way into his mind. When Andrew and Bramber meet at last, they will have a choice - to remain alone with their painful pasts or break free and, unlike their dolls, come to life.
A love story of two very real, unusual people, The Dollmaker is also a novel rich with wonders: Andrew's quest and Bramber's letters unspool around the dark fables that give our familiar world an uncanny edge. It is this touch of magic that, like the blink of a doll's eyes, tricks our own...
REVIEW: THE DOLLMAKER BY NINA ALLAN
Of all the novels that I've read during the recent months, Nina Allan's The Dollmaker is definitely the most haunting and most rewarding. I consider this novel to be literary speculative fiction at its very best and most captivating, because it's a richly told and charmingly strange love story with dark and twisted undertones. It's a remarkable and powerful novel that deserves to be read and savoured as one would a beautiful scenery or a gorgeous painting.
This novel appealed to me in many ways, because it has everything I could ever hope to find in literary speculative fiction: good prose, beautiful storytelling, intriguing characters and a sprinkle of chilling and unsettling atmosphere. Because I love beautifully written strange stories, I found this novel and its atmosphere compelling. What makes The Dollmaker especially mesmerising for me is the author's way of combining realism and weirdness in a subtly unnerving way. The story invites readers to take a glimpse at a world that is speckled with beauty, harsh realism and hard truths.
The Dollmaker is a dark fairy tale kind of a love story that is something different and defies easy categorisation. It's a unique and successful fusion of literary fiction, literary fantasy, magical realism and gothic elements. It is not a light read due to its subtly complex and gradually unfolding story, but it is deeply rewarding and its events will linger on your mind. This is one of those novels that stay with you for a long time, because the story is filled with many details and has plenty of subtext.
The Dollmaker tells of Andrew Garvie who is deeply interested in dolls. His interest in dolls has led him to become a dollmaker who makes exquisite dolls. When he answers a personal ad in the collector's magazine, he begins a correspondence with Bramber Winters. Bramber is interested in Ewa Chaplin's dolls, which are strangely lifelike. Gradually, she reveals things about her sheltered life in an institution on Bodmin Moor. Because Andrew understands what it means to be trapped, he decides to rescue her. As he travels through the old towns of England and makes his way towards Bramber, he reads Ewa Chaplin's collection "Nine Modern Fairy Tales", which contains eldritch and strange fairy tales.
As you can see by this short description about the story, this novel is something different. It's a wholly original novel that is different in the best possible way, because it depicts a weird love story between two unusual people who have found each other by means of correspondence.
This novel has an unusual structure, because it consists of Andrew's journey towards Bramber, Bramber's letters to Andrew and Ewa Chaplin's fairy tales, five of which are featured in the story. This kind of fractured storytelling results in an intricately woven story filled with meaning and wonder.
The characterisation is rich and satisfying, because the characters are beautifully drawn and feel achingly realistic. As the story unfolds, the author reveals things about Andrew Garvie and Bramber Winters and invites the reader to explore their strange lives. What is revealed about both of them deepens the reading experience and lends the story intimacy and psychological depth.
Andrew Garvie is a short and intelligent man. He is unlike others and knows what it means to be different. Ever since childhood, he has been fascinated by dolls and has become a dollmaker who makes beautiful dolls. When he begins a correspondence with Bramber Winters, he becomes infatuated and obsessed with her. During his journey towards Bramber, he reads Ewa Chaplin's fairy tales and sees himself reflected in them.
Bramber Winters is interested in Ewa Chaplin's lifelike dolls, which resemble people. Due to terrifying events that happened long ago, she lives a secluded and sheltered life in an institution, West Edge House, on Bodmin Moor. She doesn't leave the institution, but stays there.
Andrew and Bramber have had their share of loneliness and pain, but they've survived. They're realistic characters whose lives have not been easy. They both have their own hopes and needs, but they also have fears and insecurities. Their friendship and how they come to feel about each other is deftly handled by the author, because she tells of how they have coped with their lives and how they begin to reach out to one another and reveal secrets about their pasts.
The descriptions of the places that Andrew visits are evocative and realistic. When you read about the various places, it almost feels as if you're there yourself.
Ewa Chaplin's modern fairy tales are compelling and intriguingly poetic. These tales fascinated me, because they've been written in a beautiful and slightly unsettling way. They have an intelligent and sharp edge to them that makes them unique. Reading about how the fates of the characters spiral into unexpected directions and what kind of consequences their choices have on their lives is fascinating, because life is not always easy and certain choices can have repercussions (what happens to the characters is deftly explored in the tales).
What makes these fairy tales especially intriguing is that their contents and their themes interlink with the main story in a subtle way, because they echo what happens in the story. I found the themes of loneliness, attraction, love, loss and fear interesting and was fascinated by how fluently they were handled and how haunting they were.
One of the fairy tales, "The Duchess", is a tale about an actress called Nelly Toye who buys a painting portraying a woman in an ermine stole, seated in an armchair, and a dwarf beside the armchair. Nelly falls in love with a soldier and finds herself being happy and scared, because she doesn't know how her husband would react to her having an affair with another man. In this fairy tale, the author fluently tells of a woman who is trapped in her marriage and tries to find a way out. When Nelly tries to find a solution to her problem, she thinks about committing a desperate and violent act. I was taken by this tale's atmosphere and characterisation, and was pleased with the ending.
The other fairy tales ("Amber Furness", "The Elephant Girl", "Happenstance" and "The Upstairs Window") are also captivating and haunting. I won't reveal anything about their contents in order to avoid spoilers, but I can mention that what is mentioned of a changeling in one of them is very fascinating.
The poem at the beginning of this novel, "Der Zwerg" ("The Dwarf") by Matthäus von Collin is beautifully translated by the author. The translation does justice to the original German text and features beautiful prose.
This novel has many themes, but the most important of them involves being different from others and being comfortable in your own body and skin despite looking different or behaving and acting differently. The author also explores identity and loneliness in a satisfyingly deep way and subtly hints at how we should not judge those who are different. These things are explored admirably, because the author doesn't underline anything and lets her readers interpret certain things for themselves.
The author has clearly done a lot of research on dolls and what is involved in making them, because she writes about dolls in an excellent way. I was impressed by her descriptions about the various dolls and their appearance, and I also enjoyed reading about how the characters felt about the dolls and what kind of meaning they had to them.
One of the main reasons why I love this novel is the author's clear and elegant prose. Her prose intensifies the magical and subtly unsettling atmosphere in an engaging way. The writing is immersive and has underlying darkness, and the fractured structure of the story works perfectly.
Nina Allan's The Dollmaker is a literary love story unlike any other. It is - in equal measure - beautiful, wonderful, strange and twisted, and it has a multi-layered and rich story. I enjoyed every page of this novel and I strongly recommend it to readers who love beautifully written stories with excellent characterisation and plenty of depth.