‘Savory’ and ‘gritty’ are not two words that typically go hand in hand describing a novel. One rich and full and the other edgy and rough, casting through my thoughts trying to quantify Angela Carter’s magnificent The Magic Toyshop (1967), I keep returning to the dichotomy, however. A fleshed out experience with detail that brings the story to life, the novel nevertheless possesses an edge of quotidian realism that grounds it in something wiser, more fatalistic, and more human for it.
Gorgeous prose telling a gorgeously dark story, The Magic Toyshop is a few months in the life of young Melanie. Eldest daughter to an upper-middle class British family, she and her younger brother and sister enjoy the comforts of life, even as her parents are not often around. At fifteen, her body, and her thoughts regarding her physical self, are changing. But nothing changes her as much as a tragedy that strikes one day. Forced to leave her home and live with an uncle, Melanie’s youth takes a drastic, unexpected left turn. The uncle, named Philip, is a surly toymaker and runs a strict, depressing home. Philip married to an energetic Irish woman named Margaret, however, Melanie finds solace in the new situation through her aunt’s kindness. It remains uncertain, however what Margaret’s two brothers, Finn and Francis, have to offer.
A young woman’s sensual/sexual coming of age in mid-20th century London, The Magic Toyshop is superb reading. The title a bit tongue-n-cheek, however, it requires some lateral thinking to relate to the actual story; readers expecting a light tale of wondrous, playful things in an era of Britain’s past should check their anticipations at the door. The dark cloud of Uncle Philip and poverty hanging over the family, the living conditions are anything but Snow White or Cinderella. Somewhat subversive for the year it was published, Carter is both blunt and abstract in her rendering of sexuality and physical development. Along with symbolism, there is direct representations of Melanie and the experiences and situations had—her body not a toy.
A novel with all its edges clearly defined yet mysteriously tangible beyond, The Magic Toyshop is indication of a writer in full control of their craft. Powerful storytelling, Carter effortlessly draws the reader into Melanie’s world, and makes them feel and understand her domestic and personal situation, particularly her attempts to sort the exigencies out and find her own path. The novel’s setting is partially dated, and the gender politics are naturally contentious (what gender politics are not contentious?), nevertheless this should be required reading for every teenage girl—precisely for the savory and gritty experience it offers.