Angela Carter was a master of really weird magical realism. Her second book "The Magic Toyshop," is basically a forcible coming of age/first love story, wrapped in a fairy-tale ambience and exquisitely detailed writing, but it's hard not to be frustrated by the abrupt, bizarre finale.
Melanie and her two siblings are suddenly orphaned, and whisked away from the beautiful country house and idyllic life they've always known. Soon they're living in a slummy area of the city, with their brutish toymaker Uncle Philip, wraithlike mute Aunt Margaret, and her two brothers, in a house that is crammed with the magnificent toys that Uncle Philip creates.
Melanie finds herself increasingly drawn to her aunt's brother Finn, a feisty Irish boy who hides an artistic soul and a punk attitude -- and he and Philip are locked in a silent war. As the family tensions come to a climax, Melanie learns of a dark secret that Aunt Margaret is hiding, and which can only end in a horrific tragedy.
"The Magic Toyshop's" title would make you think that it's about... well, the toys, or the toymaker. Instead, it's all about Melanie's maturation into a young woman, and how she leaves her childhood behind. Unfortunately it starts to stagger toward the finale, as if Carter didn't know how to deal with all this stuff.
What makes this novel so intoxicating is the lush writing. Carter fills her prose with a ripe sensuality, rich in colours, sensations, feelings and impressions (such as the horrifying attack by a swan puppet, a la Leda). And she accurately captures a young girl's dreams and exploration, such as Melanie posing before a mirror, pretending to be a classic artist's model.
Unfortunately, the plot goes downhill in the last lap -- the shocking revelation is shocking mainly because it was never hinted at. And the ending feels tacked on, as if she just had to find SOME way of ending the plot quickly and took the most flamboyant one. It's also incredibly depressing and unsatisfying.
The characters are also unevenly portrayed -- Melanie and Finn are compelling as the young future lovers, one romantic and disgusted by the place she now finds herself, and the other a tough, kindly urchin. The other characters are rather underdeveloped -- Melanie's brother and sister are basically props, Finn's older brother is a shadow, and Philip is an ogre.
"The Magic Toyshop" is an exquisitely written novel, with a likably real teenage heroine, but marred by a contrived ending. Definitely worth a read, but not Carter at her best.