Sixteen-year-old Cathy Wray shows up in London the November before Christmas to answer a job advert she discovered in the paper for the famed Toy Emporium at Iron Dukes Mews in London 1906.
When she arrives, she finds herself busy with making every Christmas toy special for the little ones that drag their parents in. While busy working, she also finds herself busy making plans of her own for her future and becoming acquainted with those who will soon become her new family and falling in love with everything, and a certain one, around her.
But as Iron Duke Mews sees, War, children age and the city begin to change, family ties are made and severed. But Cathy always finds herself returning to the Emporium, a fairyland of her own where the lines between reality and make-believe are blurred.
THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.
As a lover of the fantasy genre, I am also a lover of beautiful cover designs, and this is one of many books that I have picked simple because I liked the look of it, thankfully this technique hasn’t failed me yet.
The initial idea of a pregnant sixteen-year-old runaway isn’t that interesting, its played out and never usually ends well. Cathy’s arrival at the emporium in chapter two was promising though, not only because of the setting and thrill of toys coming to life at Christmas, but because we meet three of our main characters immediately: Kaspar and Emil Godman and their father Jekabs, who hail originally from Russia (there is something so thrilling about meeting characters whose origins began in a place that, as a British reader, is so completely foreign and fantastical to me) and this idea of the fantastic clings to these three characters.
The little hint of flirtation at the beginning of the book between the older, more enigmatic Godman boy, Kaspar and Cathy is also very sweet, but as always with this type of character set up, there is also the promise of a love triangle, which is great if that’s the sort of thing you like. Personally, I find that angle a little overly played in texts like these as well but Robert Dinsdale, handles this storyline very well, with Cathy not having to slave over a choice between the two, but actively be drawn to, and choosing, Kaspar from the very beginning of her relationship between the two brothers, while feeling all of the effects of the love triangle which has repercussions for later events.
After end of the first Christmas in chapter 6 when Cathy leaves the Emporium to try start life as a young single mum in 1907 London, it does initially seem as though that’s the way the story is headed, with us following her through the hardships of London, and perhaps returning to the Emporium in later years. Instead, we see Kaspar, who has discovered her pregnancy, bringing her back to wait out her pregnancy in a Wendy house in the now very quiet Emporium, which is a plot turn I did not expect. And though the novel spans years and generations, the basis of all of the relationships and decisions to come later, all stem from the few chapters in which these four characters are first confined to the walls of the Emporium, or in the case of Cathy, to walls of her Wendy house hidden within the forest of paper trees being looked after by Kaspar, who is steadily falling in love with Cathy, who is, in turn, falling for him, and Emil, who, for all of his efforts, will never be Cathy’s love.
It sounds ridiculously childish- toys coming to life, paper trees, but Dinsdale’s treatment of these motifs make sense when the War begins.
Kaspar, the bad boy who has the same magic for toys that his father Papa Jack has, and which Emil could never hope to possess despite his trying, is now married to Cathy and is the adoptive father of her daughter, Martha. But when the war begins xenophobia causes him to join The War, leaving Emil and the others to run the Emporium.
This is the saddest parts of the novel and where you begin to realise that this is an adult’s book. The War destroys lives, physically and emotionally. But Emil, who marries and has 2 sons, seems to be coming into his own in his brother’s absence and his toy soldiers are selling like hotcakes. But Kaspar’s return presents a raking up of all those feelings of jealousy and inadequacy. Toys have always been magical in the hand of Kaspar and his Papa, and as boys, Kaspar and Emil would often play the Long War, an imaginary projection of their genuine fraternal feud, but when Kaspar returns suffering from PTSD he can’t abide the idea of soldiers being played with as toys to do, bending to the will of a higher, unfeeling controlling power – understandably- and in defiance he brings the soldiers toys to life, to let them live and fight for whatever cause they wanted without having to be dictated to others and give his soldier the agency that he and his comrades in the trench never had, dying at the will of majors and sergeants miles away.
These newly animated soldiers destroy the Emporium, Emil’s marriage, his family and his life because he can no longer get control of his stock or his work.
As a result, Emil imprisons Kaspar in one of Kaspar’s own bottomless toy boxes, to keep him out of the way, forges a death certificate and writes a note to Cathy and her daughter, from Kaspar, telling them that he has left so that Cathy can start anew. In the end, Cathy is reunited with Kaspar but only thirty years later, when she is old, when Martha has a family of her own and Emil, still trying to scratch out a life out from the dregs of the run down Emporium, has nothing left to fight for.
I could never have envisioned the story going like this is which why I gave it a high rating, I like being surprised, but it lost a star just because of how heart-breaking it actually is.
Kaspar’s relationship with his brother is nuanced and clearly one deeply ingrained in both of them. The problem with Emil was and his toys, the reason why they could never be as good as Kaspar’s or his father’s is Emily could never understand the need to create something that would take the user to a safe place – because he’d never left his comfort zone, he’d never lived outside of the Emporium, he’d never really fallen in love, and he’s never experienced the hardships of life that makes people crave the eternal youth of a toy, and it made him bitter. In the end, its Kaspar’s toy that manages to bring him true happiness while Emil’s toys tear his world apart.
There are so many layers to this book which go beyond toys coming to life. It isn’t about that, it is about understanding other humans and what makes them human, it’s about escaping pain through childhood, creating childhood, falling in love and making use of the time you’ve been given and Dinsdale has done a brilliant job at weaving at of these layers together to create a book that is such a heart rendering, beautiful winter read.