Tin Toys by Ursula Holden

When I began reading Virago Modern Classics, when I was still at school and regularly spotting green spines in the library, every book was a step into the unknown. new titles, new authors, and I knew that they were worthy of investigation because they came with those distinctive covers that I knew were a sign of quality.

But now things have changed. The green covers have gone and now I recognise many of the names and titles added to the Virago list.

Some of that is down to me: I’ve more reading years behind me, I’ve found so many more places to find out about books, and I’ve learned to always look closely at old books with unfamiliar titles written by unknown authors.

But Virago Modern Classics have changed too. As the numbers have increased the choices have become a little safer, the books a little less ‘lost’ than the books that came earlier in the list. They were still fine books by interesting authors, but the thrill of a new discovery seemed to be a thing of the past.

Until I saw that The Tin Toys Trilogy by Ursula Holden would be added to the list in 2013. I knew neither the author nor the book, but I was intrigued. And I was impatient, so I tracked down a copy of Tin Toys, the first book of the trilogy.

I discovered that Ursula Holden already had a Virago connection: she wrote introductions to four of Virago’s Barbara Comyns reissues. I pulled them out to look at last night and I have to say that they are very good; and that she clearly admired her subject and knew her work well.

And now I find that Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is at the head of my queue of books to read ….

But back to Ursula Holden and Tin Toys. It’s a sinister tale, lightened by a wonderful young voice and a very small pinch of fairy dust.

Tin ToysThat voice belongs to seven year-old Ula, whose father has died, whose mother has flown, whose sisters have their own world in the school room, whose baby brother is cossetted in the nursery. Ula does not belong in any of their worlds.

And so she is a child alone, growing up in a divided in a divided and dysfunctional household.

It is hardly surprising that Ula is a strange and solitary child.That wasn’t what she wanted, but she didn’t know what to do, what to say, what to be. And so often she gets it wrong.

When tragedy struck, that dysfunctional household fell apart. Ula was thrown into another household. And then another. Such different households, such different worlds, but Ula could never quite work them out. She kept on trying to make a place for herself, and she kept on getting it wrong.

But it wasn’t all Ula’s fault.  Both children and adults can be so terribly unkind to somebody who doesn’t quite fit in.

Would Ula ever get it right? Would she ever find a true friend? Would she ever find a grown-up who understood?

Her story rattled along, holding a wonderfully dark atmosphere, holding the childish perspective perfectly. And there is much colour, character and incident to hold the attention.

Sometimes characters seemed to shift suddenly, but I understood that was the childish perception, that there were complex adult relationships and emotions that I could wonder about while Ula was oblivious.

And along the way Ursula Holden made me think of a number of other Virago authors: Molly Keane, Maura Laverty, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and the aforementioned Barbara Comyns. I can’t help thinking of them all as literary cousins.

A distinguished company, and though I haven’t read enough yet to draw any real conclusions I am inclined to think that Ursula Holden belongs there.

She has a distinctive voice and a distinctive style, and she pulled me right in, to see the world though Ula’s eyes.

I’m so pleased there are two sequels, and I am looking forward to finding out what happens next.

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