The Dollmaker by Nina Allan (Book Review)
“Ewa Chaplin wasn’t afraid to make dolls that weren’t comforting… She seemed to know that dolls are people, just like us.”
Nina Allan’s latest novel is already a contender for the best book of 2019. Allan has been writing consistently well crafted and thoughtful work since her earliest short stories, but one of the exciting things about following her career is how she pushes herself and develops with each new novel. The Race (2014) and The Rift (2017) are both excellent novels, but The Dollmaker sees her developing her craft even further in what is both a beautifully drawn character study of its two leads and a formally experimental work exploring the ways different narrative techniques can be tied together to create something greater than the sum of their parts. It may be her best work yet.
At its heart, The Dollmaker is a love story between two unusual and wonderfully realised characters. Andrew Garvie is a dwarf who makes dolls, eventually gaining the skill and recognition to leave his day job in an accountancy firm. Bramber Winters is a woman who lives in an institution on Bodmin Moor following the traumatic events of her childhood, and is fascinated by the dolls of enigmatic Polish artist and short story writer Ewa Chaplin. The two misfits strike up a friendship when Andrew answers Bramber’s personal ad in a collector’s magazine, and from their shared passion for dolls they develop a deep friendship. As Bramber’s letters reveal more and more about her life trapped in the institution, Andrew hatches a plan to rescue her, in the process leaving behind the confines of his previous life.
From this deceptively straightforward set-up, Allan weaves a rich intertextual narrative that explores ideas around being an outsider, the power of storytelling and the importance of taking control of your own narrative. Allan’s previous two novels both explored the way different narratives can overlap to undermine our sense of continuity and hence create a sense of unease about our relationship between the text and the narrators whilst thematically enriching and supporting each other. She continues to explore this territory in The Dollmaker. The novel is told through three distinct narrative voices. In one strand, Andrew describes his friendship with Bramber and his journey to rescue her from West Edge House. Another strand is made up of Bramber’s letters to Andrew, in which she slowly reveals more about her situation at the institution and the events of her past life that led her there. The third strand is Ewa Chaplin’s fictional short stories, which are presented to us in the order that Andrew reads them on his journey to meet up with Bramber. As the three strands progress, narrative coincidences abound. Ideas, themes and motifs are echoed between Andrew’s journey and the dark, fairy tale-esque short stories he is reading; characters reappear as echoes or different versions of each other across all three strands. As the boundaries between story and reality collapse, Andrew’s journey begins to take on more of a quest-like aspect, and magical undertones begin to suggest themselves in the mundane world.
Much as the science fictional sections on the planet of Tristane in The Rift are part of a much more complex and difficult to categorise whole, The Dollmaker is suffused with elements and echoes of fairy tales, but the way in which the fantastical interacts with the ostensibly “real” world that the novel is set in is much more complicated. Allan excels at picking at the edges of reality, creating a sense that the world we think we know and understand is only a step away from being unravelled, revealing something much more strange, wondrous and unsettling. The fantastical and the mundane bleed into each other until it is impossible to say where one begins and the other ends. This is evident in the Ewa Chaplin stories, which are on some levels retellings of familiar fairy tales, but transposed into something recognisable as the world we live in, with the mythic and the magical underpinning the narrative, hinted at or only revealed at the climax. The blurring effect is furthered by how these stories interact with the main narrative, as their resonances and motifs wind their way into Andrew’s world and begin to inform his behaviour and decisions. The end result is a book that is rich in fairy tale lore, but in which the magic remains hidden beneath the surface, as in something like John Crowley’s Little, Big (1981).
Because of their thematic resonance to the whole, it is worth looking at the Ewa Chaplin stories in more detail. Over the course of five stories, ‘The Duchess’, ‘Amber Furness’, ‘The Elephant Girl’, ‘Happenstance’, and ‘The Upstairs Window’, Allan demonstrates the sheer range of narrative voices she is able to inhabit, from film make-up artist Sonia in ‘Happenstance’ who discovers that the aunt who steals her boyfriend is a fairy queen and decides to kill her to cynical filmmaker Ivan Stedman who helps his friend escape from a dystopian future Britain in ‘The Upstairs Window’. Each tale has its own distinct flavour, yet they share themes of murder, madness, lust, secret lives and the desire for control, and some share alternate versions of the same character playing a different role. Each one riffs on a literary motif – ‘The Duchess’ plays on Webster’s The Duchess Of Malfi (1613), with sections written as a script as the protagonist’s sense of reality begins to deteriorate and the Duchess character begins to take over, while ‘The Upstairs Window’ plays with Fleming’s Dr. No (1958) and spy fiction. Over the course of the stories, the reader gets a sense of the importance of storytelling, the way that the narratives the stories are in dialogue begin to exert their influence over the characters. Ewa Chaplin’s stories are populated by dwarves, struggling artists, misfit children, war-wounded veterans and disgraced queens, all outsider characters who embody the uncanny and the weird in these narratives, even as they push against the restrictions cast over them by both society and the story they are stuck in. For all that they are expected to play sinister or villainous roles, one can see that Chaplin’s and Allan’s sympathies are with these heroic outsiders struggling against the systems that wish to define and constrain them. This is echoed in the stories of Andrew and Bramber, and over the course of the novel both gain the agency to turn away from the roles that society expects them to play and become the centres of their own stories.
Andrew becomes famous for his “troll dolls”, which are vintage dolls that have been damaged and disfigured that he rescues and repairs. This is an example of how The Dollmaker uses a trope from horror fiction – the disfigured doll – and subverts it. Rather than being creepy and off putting, Andrew’s dolls are beautiful and empathetic because of how they are preserved with their scars and breakages. As Andrew says:
“My dolls were little dissidents, in their way. As human beings they would have faced lives of oppression, everything from run-of-the-mill name-calling to full social exclusion. And yet they persist, I told myself. Their very existence was a kind of protest, if not against anything so grand as ‘the political consensus’ then at least against those bullies and tyrants who saw it as their business to dictate to others – at whatever level – how they should live their lives.”
Andrew sees his dolls as a proud affirmation of his outsider status, a defiant stance in a society that others him because of his height. He finds himself drawn to the dwarf characters in Ewa Chaplin’s stories because they are well drawn and sympathetic characters, unlike the simple villainous stereotypes he is used to encountering when he sees himself reflected in fiction. This is reflected in Andrew’s personal growth over his journey. As his journey continues, he begins to see himself more and more as Bramber’s mythical rescuer, her heroic knight on a quest to save the damsel in distress. However, when he meets Bramber, he decides he does not want to play a role which robs Bramber of her own agency, because he has seen and lived the effects of that. His decision to leave his quest unfulfilled and allow Bramber to become the acting agent in her own story means that their relationship is able to thrive and develop for both of them.
Bramber’s fascination with Ewa Chaplin’s dolls and stories also comes from her recognition of and sympathy to their position as outsiders. Kept away in an institution on the moors, Bramber’s story has elements of the gothic in it from the start. As she slowly reveals more of herself through her letters to Andrew, we see how her life in a small town nevertheless has echoes in Chaplin’s stories of love and betrayal; these are universal human experiences. As someone who is institutionalised, Bramber finds her story controlled by others and her agency curtailed. Bramber and the other inmates of West Edge House find their narratives about themselves at odds with the official narratives of the doctor. Telling stories about themselves, and making the decisions over which information to divulge and withhold, becomes a powerful act of self-assertion, especially when it comes to light that the doctor’s façade of respectability hides something far more unpleasant. Bramber’s journey over the course of her letters is a journey to reclaim her past and so come to terms with it; it is only when she has made peace with her past self and her childhood friend that she can leave the house and begin the next stage of her romance with Andrew.
As Andrew and Bramber journey towards self-realisation, it becomes clear just how important the contact that they have through their letters is to each of them. The connection they have as two people equally outside societal norms but for very different reasons inspires and sustains them on their personal journeys. Andrew and Bramber only share one short scene together near the end of the book, but that is enough. In the end, The Dollmaker is a novel about all the different ways of being, and the way that people are able to make connections with each other. Allan’s prose is as luminous as always, and her characters well drawn and engaging, with a tendency to get under one’s skin. Though it may not strictly be genre fiction, The Dollmaker is very much about the power of storytelling and the force it exerts over our lives. I am still unpicking all the implications of its dizzying depths, and its images, ideas and characters will stay with me long after.