The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

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A novel which shows the reader the magic of science, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is captivating, gripping and thoroughly enjoyable. A blend of tones bring this unique story to life, bouncing around time-zones and character point of views to give us a well-rounded narrative. Pulley’s alternative portrayal of Victorian Britain is an added twist to this already riveting tale. Her memorable characters and use of setting are nothing short of immersive, the use of the senses working at capacity to plunge us into the story.

One of the many ways in which this novel shone for me was the use of setting. Though set in a (largely) well-explored time-period – certainly in literature anyway – The Watchmaker of Filigree Street didn’t feel like just another Victorian Britain novel. Instead, it was refreshing to see the influence of overseas happenings and how they entwined with our traditional scenes. The section where Thaniel first sets foot in the Japanese quarter is one of the most memorable; he is hit with a barrage of sights, sounds and smells. An alternative community is explored, and we question whether or not he has in fact been transported to Tokyo itself – anything is possible in this novel! The importance of food and rituals is highlighted throughout, going far beyond the differences in tea (although this is rightly noted) and instead exploring the sense of community that was thriving among these groups at the time. Yet, it also serves a reminder of the hostility these outsiders faced, the political turbulence at the time, and the internal battle that existed within these communities to both ‘fit in’ and remain true to their culture. This concept isn’t too far removed from our modern reasoning (if at all), making the text a poignant analysis into the lack of progress regarding cultural thought.

Despite these largely ‘heavy’ themes and intense socio-political backdrop (which I have no doubt ventured too far into), Pulley doesn’t use this as a central grounding for The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. The novel is undeniably fun and enjoyable, and I found myself become more engrossed as the pages went on. The novels main intention is to allow the reader to explore the realm between science and magic; can science explain away everything which is so-called magical? Is there a certain side to science that is ‘magic’ in its own right? The novel encourages us not to seek explanations for everything that we are presented with, yet the inquisitive Grace attempts to find them anyway. This ultimate desire for knowing is what largely drives the novel, and almost destroys Mori’s entire character when Grace does the unthinkable and figures out his weakness.

Grace’s wonderings are weaved in beautifully throughout the text, grounding it with a sense of logic that the reader ultimately craves. However, not everything is logistical; while Katsu’s inner workings are largely accounted for by the use of magnets, the creature still possesses its own personality which is hard to ignore. A sense of wonder surrounds this tiny clockwork machine, which is alluded to throughout, and also gives a glimpse into Mori’s softer side. We are left to decide ourselves whether Katsu is indeed just an elaborate bomb, or something almost other worldly. Will our cynicism take over, as Grace’s does when she mentions the concept of ‘seeing’ sounds, or will the beauty of the unknown prevail and captivate us?

Another branch of the novel, but one which that does not override the overarching themes of science and magic, is the love story element. In many ways, this is a tale that questions how far one will go for those meaningful human connections; Mori is tied to Thaniel in a mysterious way, Thaniel himself is blind to Mori’s shortfalls because of his gratitude, and Grace is too pre-occupied with her discoveries that she fails to notice the connections around her until it is seemingly too late. When she does attempt some sort of relationship with Thaniel, she is met with negativity, pushing her further into her own mind. I enjoyed the fact that the idea of Grace and Thaniel was teased but then ultimately taken away – their pairing was almost too easy yet still largely unimaginable. Their differing characters meant that the notion of falling in love didn’t make much sense. They help each other to progress throughout the novel, paving the way for them each to move forward along their individual paths. Yet the vulnerability of our characters is also hard to ignore. Each one seeks comfort in different forms, and the novel shows us that succumbing to this need to protect and care about others is what is most important. Overall, friendship and community triumphs all.

Finally, I couldn’t end this review without giving a special mention to one of my favourite female characters that I’ve read recently – the remarkable Grace. Pulley has done a great job at showcasing the independent, forward-thinking nature of Grace in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. However, she isn’t just the one-dimensional outspoken woman that many have portrayed in such historical novels. Grace is surprising – she questions the purpose of giving women the vote at this time, and criticises the suffragettes, highlighting the alienation that many women outside this social circle felt at that time. She dresses up as a man frequently, and her apparent main goal in life is to have somewhere where she can peacefully carry out her experiments. However, she is not blind to the world that she inhabits. She recognises that she may have to give up her ambitions and settle into the life that is expected of her, yet she manages to use this to her advantage. Though confident, her vulnerable sides are also shown, and this doesn’t detract from her personality or make her a ‘weaker’ individual. Pulley has created a strong, inspirational character who fits perfectly into this magically unique story.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is published by Bloomsbury and is available here.

Natasha Pulley

Natasha Pulley studied English Literature at Oxford University. After stints working at Waterstones as a bookseller, then at Cambridge University Press as a publishing assistant in the astronomy and maths departments, she did the Creative Writing MA at UEA. She later studied in Tokyo, where she lived on a scholarship from the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation. She was chosen to be a Writer in Residence at Gladstone’s Library and is now associate lecturer at Bath Spa University and panel tutor at the Cambridge University Institute of Continuing Education. Her first novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, was an international bestseller, won a Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. The Bedlam Stacks is her second novel. She lives in Bath.

@natasha_pulley

Reviewed by Mariah Feria

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