By Robert Dinsdale
It has been a very long time since I’ve finished a book that has left me feeling so emotionally gutted. The Toymakers broke my heart many times over, in the best possible way. It’s rather hard to put this review into words because my heart is actually still alternating between being clenched and then fluttering like a host of butterflies. Just like the magic the author describes, this book is bigger on the inside, evoking feelings inside that I rarely feel with a book. I’m going to have a hard time pulling myself out of this enchantment, and I’m not sure I want to.
The Emporium opens with the first frost of winter. It is the same every year. Across the city, when children wake to see ferns of white stretched across their windows, or walk to school to hear ice crackling underfoot, the whispers begin: the Emporium is open!
It is 1917, and London has spent years in the shadow of the First World War. In the heart of Mayfair, though, there is a place of hope. A place where children’s dreams can come true, where the impossible becomes possible – that place is Papa Jack’s Toy Emporium.
For years Papa Jack has created and sold his famous magical toys: hobby horses, patchwork dogs, and bears that seem alive, toy boxes bigger on the inside than out, ‘instant trees’ that sprout from boxes, tin soldiers that can fight battles on their own. Now his sons, Kaspar and Emil, are just old enough to join the family trade. Into this family comes a young Cathy Wray – homeless and vulnerable. The Emporium takes her in, makes her one of its own. But Cathy is about to discover that while all toy shops are places of wonder, only one is truly magical…
The story revolves around Cathy, a young girl who finds herself pregnant at 16 and runs away to find a place she can live with the child and not have to give it up. The Emporium welcomes her with open arms, and there she meets Papa Jack and his two sons, men from the East who make toys so magical they could almost be real. Or, perhaps, they are – that is the magic of toys after all.
From there, the book sweeps across a life: we start in 1907 and finish in 1953, the Emporium surviving two world wars… and a war of its own. The Long War has been fought between the two brothers ever since they became toymakers themselves, pitting toy soldiers against each other, while they also try to take control of the store itself. By following Cathy, we see the lives that are changed in this place, and the magic toys can bring.
There is so much in this book. Patchwork dogs that seem alive; paper trees that put down roots; Wendy houses that are the size of a real house inside. Even toy soldiers who can wind each other up. We follow Marth, Cathy’s daughter, as she grows. Kaspar, the eldest son of Papa Jack, as he returns from war a changed man. Every time I thought I was settling into a story, it turned into something else, so I could not anticipate where the story was going.
The magic of the Emporium is reminiscent of books such as the Night Circus and captures that feeling you remember of toystores at Christmas when you were a child. The magic in this book comes from how the author winds real magic into the pages: he says Papa Jack can make the toys so realistic because he uses the perspective of a child, and so the author has done the same, weaving perspective to make the pages come alive. I was fully immersed in Cathy’s story, in her relationship with Kaspar. During the last chapters, I felt so empty, imagining myself in her shoes.
While the pacing is slow, it’s still impossible to put down. Again, I’m going to blame it on magic. Towards the end when we begin to skip years at a time, I felt as if I myself was watching my life flash before my eyes, my own story coming to an end. I can’t believe I let myself get so engrossed by a book. Like one of Kaspar’s massive toy chests, I’ve fallen in, and I can’t get back out.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. I’ve reread the last chapter twice. It’s a real masterpiece.