I can safely say that I have never read a book quite like this one, and don’t think I will again! It was a book that challenged me, unsettled me, intrigued me – and, by the end, had completely enchanted me.
The main narrative thread follows Andrew and Bramber, who meet through a shared love of dolls, and an advert for a pen pal that Bramber places in a doll collecting magazine. After exchanging several letters, they soon realise they also share a similar feeling of not quite belonging, of being misfits, and develop a companionship. Andrew decides to embark on a grand quest to meet Bramber – who lives in a mental institution several days’ journey west. Andrew doesn’t let Bramber know that he’s intending to visit her – so I had a very anxious feeling as he travelled west to meet here. How would she react when he suddenly arrives? Will it end in disappointment?
On his journey, Andrew takes a book of fairytales by Ewa Chaplin – a doll maker and author who Bramber has a keen interest in. Short fairytales from this book weave in and out of Andrew and Bramber’s story (which is told through both Andrew’s quest narrative and letters from Bramber to Andrew). These short, eerie stories seduced me – I found them completely bewitching, while at the same time wholly disconcerting. Similar themes run through them of dwarfs, dolls, the grotesque, duchesses, queens, good and evil, magic, carnival, betrayal, revenge. They are shocking and powerful stories – emotion bubbles close to the surface, with an underlying and lurking threat of a downfall to come.They were by far my favourite part of this book.
The format of the whole novel is disjointed, like the individual doll limbs on the book’s front cover, which need to be stitched and glued together. Through this narrative structure, Allan blurs the boundaries of ‘art’ and ‘life’ – similar characters and situations from the fairytales appear in Andrew and Bramber’s own recollections, and the two begin to meld together. This mirroring had a jarring and eerie effect on the me – it was startling to recognise something you’d already seen elsewhere, in a slightly different form. Different modes of art are interrogated throughout the book – paintings, music, antiques, poems, letters. I found this metafictional, self aware style quite challenging at first. Instead of getting lost in this book, I felt I was always being reminded that I was in reading a work of fiction.
We are told near the beginning of the story that dolls do not age – and even though Andrew’s quest to rescue Bramber is linear, I generally found time to be quite fluid throughout the book. I was not always sure what era all the stories were set in, or what age all the different characters were. This again could be quite disconcerting, for example when a sense of youth is juxtaposed with some very adult themes.
All in all, I didn’t find this a very ‘easy read’ (if that’s what you’re looking for…). But in the end, I found that I had enjoyed the challenge, and ultimately have been left quite astounded by this original and quirky book.