A doll maker with dwarfism, a woman living in a mysterious asylum, and several unsettling Polish fairy tales converge in this third novel from British writer Allan (The Rift, 2017, etc.).
Andrew Garvie has had an obsession with dolls since he was a child. He both collects them and creates his own from battered or scarred parts. When he responds to an ad in a collector’s magazine asking for information about Polish doll maker and fairy-tale writer Ewa Chaplin, he strikes up a correspondence with its writer, fellow doll enthusiast Bramber Winters. Through her letters, Bramber reveals that she lives in a kind of asylum run by a Dr. Leslie, whose credentials seem dubious at best. The other residents include people with mental illness as well as several little people. Andrew becomes convinced that he is in love with Bramber and sets off on a journey across the English countryside to rescue her from this strange place. Along the way, he visits doll museums and junk shops and reads some of Ewa Chaplin’s fairy tales, which bear troubling parallels with his and Bramber’s reality. That reality has a slightly sinister feel, as if the world is almost imperceptibly tilted on its axis, and the fairy tales themselves are disturbing. With alternating chapters—Andrew’s first-person narration, Bramber’s letters, and Ewa’s fairy tales—the book moves slowly toward a quick climax and neat conclusion. Andrew explicitly says that he makes his scarred dolls as “a kind of protest,” as “little dissidents….As human beings they would have faced lives of oppression….And yet they persist.” However, the novel’s constant characterization of difference—whether of size, appearance, ability, sexuality, race, or gender—as either strange, fetishized, or magical (or all three), leaves a lot to be desired in terms of exploring the oppression the protagonist ostensibly works against. There are gay characters but they are predatory; the only black woman character is described as large, and the protagonist speculates about her pubic hair. The many characters with dwarfism are consistently compared to dolls and fetishized by average-size people. While the rich imagery, sentence construction, and deft storytelling lend the novel charm and readability, these aspects of the narrative are disturbing.
A gothic story which explores human nature while sometimes getting lost in stereotypes and unnecessary detail.