The Dollmaker, Nina Allan (riverrun 978-1-787-47255-6, £14.99, 416pp, tp) April 2019. (Other Press 978-1590519936, $16.99, 416pp, tp) October 2019.
One of the questions Nina Allan’s fiction consistently raises is whether the idea of genre is even useful anymore. Her stories tend to burrow in and out of each other like enthusiastic metafictional badgers, borrowing and repurposing themes and even characters in an ongoing celebration of the fluidity of story; she never tells just one tale at a time. Here, for example, is a rather chilling story called “The Upstairs Window”, about a rebellious artist trying to survive in a dystopian theocratic England, and here’s another, “Amber Furness”, in which a young woman becomes involved with an enigmatic dwarf who may have a wizard-like ability to manipulate time. There are three more equally intriguing stories embedded in Allan’s The Dollmaker – but none of them are presented as stories by Nina Allan. Instead, we’re told they are the work of Ewa Chaplin, a Polish dollmaker who fled Europe at the start of WWII. It turns out that Chaplin isn’t the main focus of the novel, either, and isn’t even the dollmaker of the title, or at least not the main one. For that, we need to burrow upward toward the surface of the novel, where we discover a reclusive doll collector named Bramber Winters, living in a remote institution in Cornwall, which may or may not be a mental hospital. Bramber is researching the life of Chaplin, and places an ad in a doll-collecting magazine, which draws the attention of Andrew Garvie, who – finally – is the dollmaker of the title and the novel’s principal, if somewhat dodgy, narrator.
There: now we’ve made our way to the beginning, in which Andrew tells of his childhood, his early passion for a doll named Marina Blue, his outsider status as a near-dwarf (he’s four foot nine) and his growing obsession with the mysterious Bramber, with whom he strikes up a correspondence that leads him to believe that she is direly in need of rescue – despite her pointedly not inviting him and informing him that her institution doesn’t welcome visitors. Andrew’s rambling, haphazard quest across England (he doesn’t know how to drive, so it’s a combination of trains and buses) provides the spine of the novel’s plot and is the novel’s main concession to traditional suspense: what will happen when he gets there, or will he get there at all? Along the way, he decides to read the stories by Ewa Chaplin that make up over a third of Allan’s book, with another substantial chunk consisting of Bramber’s letters to him, detailing her own childhood and prior life, and eventually revealing why she’s been in the institution for some twenty years. We find ourselves reading a tapestry of connected tales and narrators – Andrew’s quest, his childhood, Bramber’s background, Ewa’s story, and Ewa’s five interpolated tales – all circling around a compelling pattern of themes and images involving not only dolls but dwarfs, clocks, stage plays, music, deformed fingers, paintings (especially Velasquez, whose “Las Meninas” provides a thematic touchstone), changelings, beetle-shaped jewelry, strange children, and even one-eyed women.
For the most part, The Dollmaker is a mainstream novel with distinctly Gothic overtones and a creepy Nabokovian narrator. But the five embedded Ewa Chaplin stories move more clearly toward fabulation, horror, and even dystopian SF – and Chaplin herself is something of a trickster narrator, offering us a slippery dual ending to one of her more compelling tales. Does an SF or horror tale nestled in a non-fantastic narrative make the whole fantastic? Is The Dollmaker partly a collection of Nina Allan stories cleverly wrapped into a novel (a couple had been published separately, in different versions), or are the stories purely functions of the character of Ewa as translated by someone named Blacher and then read by Andrew (who doesn’t seem to like them much) and Bramber? The stories themselves are worth the price of admission, disturbing non-fairy tales that occupy a territory somewhere between Angela Carter and the more mordant side of Daphne du Maurier, but the resonance they gain through odd similarities with Andrew’s and Bramber’s own stories deepens both the tales and their frame. The Dollmaker is a novel that recedes deeper into its own hall of mirrors as you read it, and it’s compelling in the same way: you want to find your way out of these reflections, but you want to savor them as well.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.
This review and more like it in the August 2019 issue of Locus.
While you are here, please take a moment to support Locus with a one-time or recurring donation. We rely on reader donations to keep the magazine and site going, and would like to keep the site paywall free, but WE NEED YOUR FINANCIAL SUPPORT to continue quality coverage of the science fiction and fantasy field.