“Even little dolls with sparrows’ hearts sometimes remember they were sparrows once.”
Every once in a while, I’ll read a book that is bleak and disturbing but nonetheless compelling because it offers just enough intrigue and faint hope to keep me reading. The Toymaker is one of those books.
We learn of the Toymaker, one infamous Menschenmacher, through a prologue narrated by someone with a knack for telling spooky tales. Menschenmacher makes dolls, mechanical men and women, for rich clients. These dolls don’t wind down, though — they contain live hearts. Menschenmacher himself is actually fairly incidental to the plot, however; the narrator quickly focuses on people touched peripherally by his craft.
Mathias, the grandson of a talented conjurer, has only ever known life in a third-rate traveling circus. One night, his drunken grandfather tells him he knows a secret that could make him fabulously rich. When his grandfather dies, Mathias “inherits” a mysterious piece of paper, which makes him a target for a lot of unsavory characters wanting to get their hands on it. On the run, he is aided and tentatively befriended by Katta, an abused servant girl whom an errant rock has left prone to seizures. They, in turn, meet Koenig and Stefan, who wonder just how valuable Mathias could be. As they all try to find out what the paper means, they are pursued by terrible cold and the Toymaker’s minions.
If you ever needed a reminder that fairytales were not originally intended for children, you’ve got one. This is a dark book; there’s more than a touch of the Grimm, and its tone is darker than, say, Goblet of Fire and Deathly Hallows combined. You have a killer and his ilk, including a torturer. You have cruel adults who aren’t above selling children or leaning on broken bones to get the information they want. (The violence isn’t overly graphic, but it is stated. There is also an illustration of a boy with blood running through his fingers.)
Despite the title, childhood as it’s commonly portrayed doesn’t exist here. The characters have very little reason to trust anyone, including each other, and little opportunity to learn. Mathias is neglected by his grandfather and treated like property by greedy adults. Katta is tormented by her own brain and haunted by the boy who threw the rock. Stefan is sullen and jealous because he can’t live up to the expectations of someone important. These children are almost feral, reacting mainly out of survival instinct and attacking like the wolves that prowl the woods. De Quidt vividly portrays the wariness and hypervigilance that comes from being forced to run in a pack with someone who has hurt you spiritually or physically. There are no apologies, so there is no clean healing–only scarring.
However, the lack of role models notwithstanding, they do have a conscience. Katta in particular flickers, her recklessness and ambivalence providing a sort of moral lesson. There is hope here, though not the easy kind; it’s tired and grimy and precarious and all the more precious for it. The character development might be a little bony — it’s hard to show off a strong personality when you’re constantly trying not to die — but often the glimpses we do get are telling. You’d be surprised at the ways people reveal or redeem themselves. The Toymaker does a difficult thing: it demands the reader care about people who are hard to get to know. That requires faith, paying attention to the fragile hints that some characters aren’t as lost as they seem.
That faith, I think, is a huge point. For the most part, the children are valued only according to how useful they are to other people. People’s “concern” for them is often false; they’re concerned more for their own gain or peace of mind than the children’s well-being. The concern is closer to control. And even as wild and tough as they are, the children have moments of longing to be valued for who they are–just cared about, no strings. I think of Katta watching bitterly as Koenig tends to Mathias: “But it wasn’t care, she told herself. It was only keeping Mathias alive. That’s all Koenig wanted.”
But is it? The book challenges you to empathize, to catch the characters when they flicker. Otherwise, The Toymaker is a cautionary tale of what can happen if that empathy isn’t nurtured…as well as a story of fierce resilience.
There are a few loose ends and unexplained details, but the action and atmosphere make up for it. I wouldn’t read it looking to be cheered up, but if you don’t mind being unsettled, The Toymaker is worth checking out.
Related (somewhat less violent) reading:
The Stonewalkers: A girl with a penchant for lying brings the statue she confides in to life, setting off an army of statues across the English moors and learning empathy in the process. Creepy but redeeming.