Book Review: The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale
Robert Dinsdale’s The Toymakers has as its setting Papa Jack’s Emporium, a strange and magical toyshop that opens with the first frost of winter, and closes again when snowdrops appear.
Do you remember when you believed in magic?
It is 1917, and while war wages across Europe, in the heart of London, there is a place of hope and enchantment.
The Emporium sells toys that capture the imagination of children and adults alike: patchwork dogs that seem alive, toy boxes that are bigger on the inside, soldiers that can fight battles of their own. Into this family business comes young Cathy Wray, running away from a shameful past. The Emporium takes her in, makes her one of its own.
But Cathy is about to discover that the Emporium has secrets of its own…
It’s perhaps unsurprising that I wanted to read The Toymakers when one of my favourite places to visit in London is Hamleys. Famous the world over and with seven floors of toys and games at its Regent Street store, I hoped to find in the Emporium some of the magic and creativity that can be found there.
I wasn’t disappointed. There are such wonders and marvels among the toys being created by Jekabs (aka Papa Jack) and sons, Kaspar and Emil. As Kaspar says: “… our papa’s training us – to never lose that perspective. To make a toy, you’ve got to burrow into that little part of you that never stopped being a boy… hidden down there, are all the ideas you would have had, if only you’d never grown up.”
But children do grow up. And while Jekabs may have become Papa Jack and a toymaker to escape from past horrors in his own life, the Emporium can’t keep the adult world at bay indefinitely. It provides a place of refuge and work for young runaway Cathy Wray, yet her arrival and plight both indicate that the Emporium is not immune from the outside world. It creeps inside and disturbs the equilibrium even here.
Once their playground, Jekabs’ sons have grown up in the Emporium, one brother’s games and memories incomplete without the other. Now, though, things are altogether more strained, with the age gap more keenly felt alongside an emerging skills gap. The older brother’s toy making performs “the feat of magic… Kaspar’s night light had cast those enchantments… There was a time only their father was capable of such things.” Emil tries to hold on to “where the true joy of the Emporium existed – in the ordinary magic of children at play” but it’s not easy for him. Especially once he decides where to focus his attentions.
The story of The Toymakers begins in 1906 with Cathy’s arrival at the Emporium and it is one that will take us all the way through the lives of the Emporium’s characters up to 1953. It’s a story of the magic in play and how powerful the imagination is when being creative, and allowed to roam free. But there’s always a darker side to all good fairytales and The Toymakers is no exception; Robert Dinsdale shows us what happens when we lose that childlike wonder as we grow up or when we lose sight of the magic and possibilities, either by allowing ourselves to become blinded or preoccupied with uglier concerns or through undergoing a traumatic experience. Dark and magical, The Toymakers totally captured my imagination.
The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale is published by Del Rey, an imprint of Ebury Publishing and part of the Penguin Random House Group. It is available as an audiobook, ebook, in hardback and in paperback. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive where purchses help support your local independent bookshop. You can read an extract here. Robert Dinsdale is the author of three previous critically acclaimed novels: The Harrowing, Little Exiles and Gingerbread. My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a review copy via NetGalley.
*GIVEAWAY* I have one paperback copy of The Toymakers to give away. Leave a comment below and the squirrels will pick a winner.