I’m not quite sure how or when Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street ended up on my Kindle app, but when searching for something to read on my long commutes, it seemed the perfect thing. Despite being a Victorianist, I don’t read a huge amount of neo-Victorian fiction, as much of it feels flimsy to me. However, this is the best example of the genre that I’ve read since Jane Harris’ The Observations (which is excellent, and definitely worth a read!).
Part of the trend for well-researched neo-Vic-lit, Pulley focuses on a certain period of the 1880s. The story begins with the Irish nationalist threat and a Clan na Gael bombing, building on the Fenian 1883 bombing of Scotland Yard. Her protagonist, Nathaniel, a slightly unusual Home Office telegraphist, has a warmth and appeal that keeps hold of you while the narrative shifts around you. The Clan na Gael threat falls away in place of a fraught love-triangle between Nathaniel, the eponymous watchmaker, Keita Mori, and a young Oxford physicist, Grace Carrow.
Pulley keeps the pull between Keita and Grace deliberately tense. Intentionality and responsibility are fraught concepts in the narrative. Pulley’s elements of fantasy involve Keita’s ability to perceive changes in the ether: in other words, to remember the future, but a future that shifts as possibilities come true and decisions are made. Keita’s ability is presented both as a fantastic ability, like Nathaniel’s synaesthesia, and a malicious threat. The other Japanese characters familiar with Keita judge him with suspicion; having used his power to kill or otherwise pre-empt a number of assassins that threaten the Japanese minister for whom he works, Keita acquires his freedom by threatening to murder Ito’s wife, having perceived her unknown allergy to bees. Matsumoto, Grace’s university friend and thinly veiled beau, also warns against Keita as a dangerous force, although his reasons for doing so ring a little false, one of the few unpersuasive notes of the whole piece.
Grace, of course, has character flaws of her own. Although her marriage to Nathaniel is one of convenience, predominantly for the purpose of her inheritence, which can benefit both of them, she is jealous of Keita and the prospect of his control over Nathaniel. Her plan to discredit Keita is perilous, involving a bombing in the Hyde Park Japanese village using one of Keita’s own delightful inventions, a beautiful (and expensive) clockwork octopus.
Pulley does a wonderful job of constructing a world in which Keita’s capability is as plausible as Nathaniel’s, and her juxtaposition of a neo-New-Woman plot and a gay relationship lends the novel an interesting freshness. As a clerk myself, I was particularly amused by the representations of Whitehall and clerkly life, but this too fell away as the plot becomes wholly absorbed in Grace’s machinations against Keita. The plot could have done with a little more balance by not just discarding these elements entirely, but it rollicked along pretty well all the same.
Image © Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar, via Wikimedia Commons