The Dollmaker by Nina Allan

riverrun, 2019, 409 p.

This book is an odd mixture of three types of narrative, the first person memoir of Andrew Garvie, a man of small stature (four feet nine inches,) inevitably nicknamed the Dwarf at school, and who has been fascinated by dolls since he was a boy before going on to manage to make a living producing bespoke dolls, interspersed with letters to him from Bramber Winters, an inhabitant of an asylum in the West Country, and five short stories, The Duchess, Amber Furness,The Elephant Girl, Happenstance and The Upstairs Window, as written by one Ewa Chaplin (and supposedly translated from the Polish by Erwin Blacher 2008, as the text notes after each one’s title.) Chaplin, another doll maker, had had to flee Poland for England just before the Nazis took over.

Despite Andrew not being a true achondroplasic – his narrative informs us there are many varieties of dwarfism – he suffers frequent comments on his size and appearance and there are other references to the famous seven dwarfs. His affinity with Bramber comes after he answers an advertisement she placed in a magazine named Ponchinella asking for information on Chaplin’s life and work.

The book veers at times into fantasy but only occasionally. One of the short stories mentions the fae folk and Andrew steals from a museum a doll, ‘The Artist,’ which is able to talk to him – but may of course only be voicing his inner thoughts.

Allan’s writing, whether as Garvie, Winters or ‘Chaplin,’ is superb. It flows, builds up a picture of Garvie and Winters, lays out their lives and, as Chaplin, the characters in ‘her’ stories deftly and economically. Those stories parallel and counterpoint the experiences of Garvie and Winters and most of them either feature or mention a dwarf or someone with a physical deformity – but they do tend to interrupt the flow of Andrew and Bramber’s relationship and require the reader to reset every time they appear. If you were harsh you could say that Allan has found a way to recycle her short stories into a larger whole, fixing them up into a novel. The overall impression though is that this has been extremely well thought out and executed.

My previous reading of Allan had been that there was something skightly askew about her writing, an oddness. The first ‘Chaplin’ story here crystallised that. It was almost as if in her previous books I were reading a translation and something in the background wasn’t coming through. Some of that oddness is apparent in the ‘Chaplin’ stories – but they are supposed to be translations which is why I made the connection. In the Andrew and Bramber sections here though everything is transparent and lucid.

Allan is a talent, of that there is no doubt. Here, her strengths show up in that lucidity.

Pedant’s corner:- “were stood at the bar” (standing,) “a team of detectives were tgrashing” (a team .. was trashing,) sprung (sprang,) vanishment (awkward sounding word. It’s in the dictionary but ‘disappearance’ would do just as well,) stumm (schtum.) “He decision to stay on” (Her decision,) “a ragged reddish-brown ellipsis” (ellipse – Allan seemed to be referring to a shape, not to a truncation, or if so it could only be interpreted that way at a severe push,) “the post office stores” (eight words later referred to as ‘it’, hence, ‘store’,) “the Church of St Ninian’s” (the possessive is already included in ‘Ninian’s’, hence either ‘St Nininan’s Church’, or ‘the Church of St Ninian’,) Andrew buys a return ticket from Bodmin to Tarquin’s Cross but then at the start of the return journey (surely unnecessarily) buys another ticket to Bodmin, “‘the Penzance train normally arrives on to Platform 3’” (trains arrive ‘at’ platforms, not on to them.)

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