The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

TheMagicToyshopI used to have this fallacy that I like Angela Carter only with my brain – I used to think that she was a writer whose works provided the perfect pretext for any enthusiastic English major student to talk about symbols, metaphors, intertextuality and all kinds of gender-stuff. I really liked both of her books I read so far (this one, which I first read during my university years as compulsory reading, and The Bloody Chamber, which I read a couple of years later, just because I wanted to read it), but I liked both of them only in and with my mind – I didn’t love them because I thought they were much too cold. Anyway, I re-read The Magic Toyshop this year, and I no longer have this fallacy – now I love Angela Carter with all my being.

I guess I mentioned a couple of times already that I absolutely love coming-of-age novels, and without the least bit of planning, I always happen to read a coming-of-age novel every two or three months, because I like (and need) to re-learn (or re-experience) what it’s like to grow up. And The Magic Toyshop can also be classified as a coming-of-age novel (of sorts), but it’s completely different from any other teenager-novel I know. The coming-of-age novels I know usually concentrate on the changes that happen to a young person’s mind when he’s growing up (even if these novels also deal with first dates and first kisses). But The Magic Toyshop is such an incredibly bodily novel that I find it breathtaking and scary even as a grown-up.

The novel’s protagonist is Melanie, who, during the 15th summer of her life, slowly realizes that she’s no longer a girl – she’s an almost-woman now. Melanie spends the last innocent-idyllic summer of her life with discovering herself and her body, and with day-dreaming about a perfect man – a phantom bridegroom who will step out of a fairy tale (or a glossy magazine) one day and to whom she will lose her virginity (or better to say: she won’t lose her virginity to him – she will give it to him, gently, in between fluffy-white pillows and cool sheets). Melanie’s daydreams and her games of make-believe are weightless, and they are without consequences, but everything changes when – because of the sudden death of her parents – Melanie and her younger siblings are forced to move to one of their late mother’s relatives, Uncle Philip. Philip is a toy-maker, and he’s the owner of the titular magic toyshop. However, he isn’t your typical benevolent, jovial uncle – instead, he’s a ruthless tyrant who terrorizes his family in every imaginable way. And his toyshop isn’t your typical Disneyland-like, merrily-magical place – instead, it’s a place where magic is dark and destructive; where the toys are so lifelike and perfect that it’s just too uncanny; and where human beings are forced to act as if they were lifeless toys.

And it is here, in Uncle Philip’s magic toyshop that Melanie – who grew up as a spoiled child, and whose days so far have been filled with the dreams and concerns of a child – starts to learn about the nature of the „real” reality – she’s forced to learn about this. Partly because Philip doesn’t let her stay in her childhood world any longer, and he uses Melanie to act out his dark and violent fantasies on/with her (not literally, but metaphorically – but in his world, metaphors and symbolic deeds carry way more weight and meaning than any real act). And partly because Melanie gets to know Philip’s family: being accepted into the family circle of Philip’s wife, Margaret, and Margaret’s younger brothers, she observes and experiences such intense, passionate, undisguised, both enticing and repulsive feelings and relations that all her childish ideas about life, emotions and – most importantly – about physical attractions and repulsions are shattered for good.

In just a couple of months, Melanie learns that sexuality isn’t always like the way she imagined – it’s not necessarily pure-beautiful-nice. In the course of her coming-of-age, Melanie has to realize that it may easily happen that the other is filthy, or less-than-gentle, and she has to realize that the (possible) future/consequence of having to raise a herd of unruly kids in a dingy, murky flat, as the wife of a grumpy man is always already present – even when she and Margaret’s brother, Finn have kissed only once.

Finn, by the way, isn’t the oh-so-strong man of a romantic novel; he’s not a man who can make a woman swoon by simply looking at her. Oh no – Finn’s presence and his clumsy-yet-knowing advances aren’t so deeply unsettling and uncomfortable for Melanie because he’s – say – frighteningly masculine – but simply because he’s real, and he’s unlike any phantom bridegroom out of a magazine Melanie used to dream about. (Actually, Finn repeatedly scorns Melanie for speaking as if she were quoting from a women’s magazine, for instance, when Melanie tells him something like this: „I’d love to be in love with you, but I don’t know how to do it.”)

I have to add, though, that there’s hardly any actual physical intercourse in the novel, but every single detail (the objects, the settings, the food, the toys) carries a whole lot of erotic potential – to the extent that it’s frightening even for an adult, let alone for a 15 year-old girl, who’s a virgin. (I don’t know if all of Angela Carter’s novels are this physical-sensual. All I know is that The Bloody Chamber is also like this.)

But despite all its darkness, this is an extremely vivid, exuberant, vibrant novel. And above all: it’s beautiful. And now I don’t see it as the work of a cold-headed genius – but simply as the work of a genius.

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2 thoughts on “The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter”

  1. I remember trying to read this novel in my first university year, picked it right off the library shelf, but the first pages were so off-puting with their dreamy descriptions, it was like nothing I’d read before, and I put back on the shelf.

    Years later I bought it, I didn’t even remember this incident until the first pages started seeming familiar; but this time I loved it, it’s one of my favourite novels, a quasi-magical realist novel. All the characters are so well-delineated, and Carter’s prose is so exuberant, the descriptions are so precise and sensual, I was quickly enraptured by it.

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