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.
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 ….