The Toymakers is a long, sweeping story, following the life of young runaway Cathy from 1907 to 1953. Pregnant, she flees home, answering an advert in the paper asking for shop-hands at Papa Jack’s Emporium, a magical toy shop open only from first frost to first thaw. Rescued by Papa Jack’s two sons, Cathy is able to stay in the toy shop permanently, building a sweet new life for herself and her baby.
Papa Jack’s is an oasis – a world where magic is made real, and childhood is open to everyone. However, the real world is able to intrude. We follow our characters through two world wars, and their effects on the changing attitudes within the toy shop and in London as a whole.
Something that stuck me hard about this story is – things break. The fragility of toys and of the innocence they represent is so achingly present throughout the book. One toy I particularly liked was Sirius. Sirius is a patchwork dog who has never been allowed to wind down because as children the boys loved him so much. Over the years he learnt more and more tricks, until he learnt so much he became much more than a toy – we see him as a real dog. The characters suspect that, if he were to be allowed to wind down, he would lose his magic and become just a toy again. I do not know if it is because I have been having an emotionally fragile winter, or because of the melancholy that always comes with early January, when I read this, or because of my Thing about things breaking, but I found this dog – a little patchwork Chekov’s gun – almost unbearably moving. To have a pet, and to know that if it were to die it would be your fault! Honestly, I nearly stopped reading, because I was so upset and worried for Sirius.
If this were a proper book review, I would probably say something about the very vivid characterisation around here. But it is not and I will not. Instead I will tell you one of our family stories.
When I was a very, very little girl, I was helping my mother with the washing up. “Be careful with that glass!” She said, like literally all mothers would have done. “If you drop it it’ll break.” And I stared at her with my big toddler eyes, and I threw the glass directly at the floor. It smashed, scattering shards of glass all over the kitchen. and I immediately burst into tears.
When Mum tells this story, it is about how headstrong and free thinking I was, even when I was tiny. “It was like you didn’t believe me! You needed to see for yourself.” But I feel this might have been the moment that I was hit by the horrifying notion that sometimes, things break beyond repair. Through my entire life I have been so so saddened by things being lost, being smashed, being ruined. I don’t know if this is part of being an only child, with no siblings to break my things and teach me to accept entropy, or if I am just particularly sentimental about objects, but it really is a part of me to this day – I cannot stand for things to be broken. I want them to be mended.
This is not a proper book review and I am not going to spoiler this lovely story to make my concluding point. But I will say that I loved Robert Dinsdale’s book of things being broken, and maybe being fixed in a way. Not exactly how they were, but something new. It’s a lesson, and a comfort, I still need.