Monday, October 14, 2019

The Dollmaker - Nina Allan (With Author Interview)

Summary: A love story of two very real, unusual people, and a novel rich with wonders that shines a radically different light on society's marginal figures.

Stitch by perfect stitch, Andrew Garvie makes exquisite dolls in the finest antique style. Like him, they are diminutive, but graceful, unique and with surprising depths. Perhaps that's why he answers the enigmatic personal ad in his collector's magazine.

Letter by letter, Bramber Winters reveals more of her strange, sheltered life in an institution on Bodmin Moor, and the terrible events that put her there as a child. Andrew knows what it is to be trapped; and as they knit closer together, he weaves a curious plan to rescue her.

On his journey through the old towns of England he reads the fairytales of Ewa Chaplin--potent, eldritch stories which, like her lifelike dolls, pluck at the edges of reality and thread their way into his mind. When Andrew and Bramber meet at last, they will have a choice--to remain alone with their painful pasts or break free and, unlike their dolls, come to life.
  (Summary and pic from

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

My Review: There are two exciting things about this review. 1) This book comes out tomorrow! Talk about hot off the presses! 2) I sent the author three questions and she answered them for us, and I've included them in this review. It's always fun to see what an author says about their work! Check those out at the bottom of my review.

Do you know what is super exciting? It’s October! YESSSSSS!! I know there are many, many of us who love fall more than anything. I love fall. There is something to love about all the seasons, sure, but there is something about fall. AmIRight?! I don’t mess around with fall—I start my creepy/scary/disturbing books/podcasts/movies early just in case I feel like I don’t get enough of it. Let’s be real, here, I do spend a lot of the year listening to podcasts that deal with all things of this ilk, but in fall it just seems like its sacrilege not to. Maybe it’s the exceptional foliage colors we’ve had this year, maybe it’s because I’m really leaning in to All The Things Fall, or maybe it’s just something special about this year—but I am here for it! And I am happy to admit that this isn’t just a rant, The Dollmaker was a fun and creepy little addition to my fall reading.

At first description you maybe wouldn’t lump antique, classical dolls and the ornate and delicate procedures that go into designing and making them as creepy, but this story is just a little macabre, which was great. I love reading books about things that I don’t know a lot about, and I love feeling that I am allowed in to a world and a subculture that I may not come into contact with in my normal life. Sure, my grandma loved dolls and bought me a few Madame Alexander dolls when I was younger, but this is beyond that. This is about dolls and doll aficionados who take it all to a whole new level—specialized, expensive dolls. Dolls that are not necessarily beautiful, but instead expressive and life-like. Doll collectors who are extremists, and the people on the outside who don’t understand what they’ve given up and what they’re giving away.

This story was layered and nuanced as well. There were complex relationships and social biases, as well as preconceived notions about people and who they are based on what they look like. There was quite a bit of discussion of trauma of all sorts, and some of that was related to people judging each other on what they looked like. It made for a dark and complex world wherein you felt like you walked the proverbial mile in another’s shoes and found that you had no idea what they had been up against, even if you thought that you might have.

Through all of these complex relationships and complicated storylines there were creepy—very creepy—short stories by a dollmaker. The stories were disturbing and just plain weird, which was awesome. Sometimes it was daunting to think of taking on the next story and I would wait until I had sufficient time to sit down and read it and cogitate it. I have lots of books that I can bring with me places and pop in and out of with ease, but this was not a book like that. Although there were parts of the story that were less complex, the short stories written by the dollmaker were not the kind you wanted to turn your back on. One false move and things changed. Also, the short stories had a tendency to mimic the real lives of those reading them, which made for a sense of foreboding and dread on behalf of the characters reading the story. See what I mean? You need this for your creepy seasonal reading.

Overall I enjoyed the book a lot. It made me uncomfortable at times due to some of the insensitivity of the characters in the book towards other characters, but I appreciate that kind of discomfort. It makes me question myself and societal norms and re-evaluate what I think and how I treat others. That’s one of the great things about reading—it challenges you in a way that you may not suspect, and allows you to question yourself and your beliefs at your own pace.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in groups of people who may not be on your radar, anyone who enjoys topics with a macabre undertone, and anyone up for a good non-traditional (re: not a ghost story) Halloween-season read.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book doesn’t have language, but has quite a bit of sex in it, and sometimes the sex is not consensual, although I wouldn’t consider it violent. There is definitely sex, sometimes taking place among same-sex partners.

Author Interview:

1.    What led you to the world of dolls and dollmakers? Why did you choose this as the backdrop for your story?

Dolls fascinated me as a child. While holidaying with my family, I loved to acquire costume dolls from the countries we visited, and many of these dolls later became characters in my earliest stories. When I was in my early teens, an aunt gave me a large, brightly illustrated book on the history of dolls and dollmaking, which further deepened my interest. What I enjoyed most, I think, was the idea of dolls almost as a separate species, like us and yet unlike us, living in a world that appeared to mirror our own and yet that was at the same time entirely strange. I always loved novels and stories that involved dolls – a favourite of mine was Rumer Godden’s The Dolls’ House – again because of the potential they seemed to hold for strangeness, and for the wildest leaps of the imagination. The core inspiration for The Dollmaker was the character of Andrew Garvie, who sprang into my head more or less fully formed. I knew instinctively that he would be a dollmaker – that is simply who he was. The details of his world fell into place around him very naturally.     

2.    Is Ewa Chaplin based on a real dollmaker? Why is she given the role of go-between and interpreter of lives and truth (with her stories)?

Some of the historical dolls and dollmakers mentioned in the book are loosely based around real makers and real factories, but Ewa is completely her own person, and a powerful symbol of creativity and endurance. What I found most compelling about her as a character is the freedom she gave me, to dive deeper into the fantastical realm, not only to give free rein to the imaginative possibilities of fairy tales, but to reveal how the often dangerous stereotypes present in some traditional fairy tales might be subverted and recast as a source of empowerment. Ewa’s stories are the most outspoken part of the narrative – her characters are bolder and sometimes scarier, and there is a sense that both Andrew and Bramber become emboldened by reading about them, that Ewa’s stories give them courage – as stories often give courage to those who are encountering difficulties in their own lives. I have heard some readers argue that it is Ewa, not Andrew, who is ‘the dollmaker’ of the title, a kind of queen behind the scenes, and I don’t think it’s my place to disagree with them!   

3.    Do you consider your book to include magical realism? Why or why not? 

I would say yes, it probably does. I think many readers might argue that Andrew’s ongoing dialogue with Ewa’s doll, ‘Artist’, is an example of magical realism, although I’m sure there are others who will remain convinced that everything that happens between Andrew and ‘Artist’ is a figment of Andrew’s overstressed imagination. I am more than happy for readers to interpret my texts any way they want to – that is the true beauty of writing, when it finds an indentity and a meaning beyond the writer, when it rightfully becomes the property of its readers. I have no objection to labels like magical realism, if they are useful to readers and critics in providing a common lexicon – I use these labels myself. The danger comes when genre labels are used not to distinguish but to restrict. Unfortunately this does still happen, especially in the case of science fiction and horror. These genres are very broad churches, encompassing some groundbreaking writing, and should be recognised as such.

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