Filled with wonder and nostalgia, The Toy Makers is equally as dark and distressing as it is magical and childlike. I don’t think that I have ever read a book quite like this, and yet it is testament to Robert Dinsdale’s writing skills that he managed to make much of the book feel very familiar.
Set in the early Twentieth century, the story follows Cathy Wray, a young, teenage girl on the run from her family due to the shame of her pregnancy out of wedlock with a local boy from ‘above’ her station. Cathy soon finds herself at the Emporium, a toy shop in London run by Papa Jack and his two sons: Emil and Kasper. Really, I don’t think I should actually tell you much more than that. This book is probably best entered with as little prior knowledge as possible. But I can assure you that this toy shop is not an ordinary toy shop!
On the face of it, Cathy is our central character: the story is very much told through her eyes and we spend EASILY the most amount of time with her. But I actually found her to be incredibly passive. She felt a bit like an actual plot device to move the story along between out two actual main characters: Emil and Kasper. These two make up the real heart of the story. They are an extremely competitive pair of siblings, who have had a very extraordinary and unusual upbringing in the Emporium, and this competition is the central theme of the book.
Despite being brothers, Emil and Kasper are very different characters. When we first meet them, Emil comes across as kind, empathetic and considerate – if not a little childish and sheltered – whereas Kasper seems vain and self-centred, caring little for Cathy’s plight and only for his reputation in the shop, but utterly brilliant at his work. His capabilities at toy making far outstretch Emil. Throughout the story, these two brothers go on a journey that accentuates some of these qualities, and covers others up, but both end up drastically different.
For me, the greatest strength in this book was simply the quality of the writing and description. Dinsdale clearly has a talent for this and it showed every time we visited the Emporium. The place was pure magic and childhood fantasy. We first see the Emporium in the very first chapter, and what an introduction it is! On the other hand, the story takes a darker turn as it progresses and Dinsdale captures these moments as well with gut-punching emotion – in much that same way that The Book Thief by Markus Zusak does the same thing. World Wars are obviously a good setting for emotional writing.
This books obvious criticism, for me, is its pacing. At times, it was incredibly slow and meandering, seemingly going nowhere. I suppose much of it was done to ensure that we had a strong emotional attachment to the characters – without this, the punch of the last third wouldn’t work – but my interest did take a dip in the middle. At this point, much of the action felt like it wasn’t connected at all, but it is; you just have to be a little patient.
Overall, I would definitely recommend this book. It is a bit of a strange one, and a little slow at times, but if you are fans of character driven plots, period dramas and whimsical fantasy then you may well enjoy this book. Do be prepared for a proper emotional rollercoaster though!