The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley is a charming character-driven novel that is just the sort I often love. I didn’t quite fall all the way for this one, but I absolutely enjoyed it despite a few niggling complaints and happily recommend it.
The setting is London in the late 1800s, during a time of Fenian bombings that have set the city on edge. Nathaniel Steepleton is a telegrapher out of the Home Office who gets mixed up in the investigations all thanks to an incredibly intricate watch that was anonymously delivered to his flat and that warned him of an impending bombing. Nathaniel is able to trace the watch to its designer, Keita Mori, a somewhat enigmatic and perhaps suspicious Japanese craftsman. As Nathaniel becomes further entwined in both the bombing investigation and a relationship with Mori, a parallel story involves Grace Carrow, a young woman studying physics at Oxford, though her time at the woman’s college is nearly at an end, leaving her desperate to figure out a way to continue her studies. She too has a Japanese companion, a fellow student named Akira Matsumoto, a relation to the current Japanese emperor. Eventually, to no great surprise, these four characters’ stories will merge, though just how that happens, and what the final results of their connections might be, is nicely surprising. As for why this is a fantasy (magical realism might be a more accurate descriptor, if one needs one), the attentive reader will pick up on it pretty quickly, and it’s fully, bluntly revealed partway through, but I won’t spoil that aspect.
There’s a deceptive amount happening in this story, even though it often reads as a quiet little novel. The bombings keep a constant sense of tension and urgency in the background (sometimes as well in the foreground), as well as raising the stakes for these relationships. But the bombing is only one of several strands. Another is the Westernization of Japan, which we see from both the English viewpoint (from English and Japanese characters) and also, via flashback’s to Mori’s past, from Japan’s viewpoint as well. The move to “Westernize” — the economy, the transportation system, mode of dress, etc. — means shedding the old Samurai/aristocracy and this too creates tension amongst characters, as well as provides some motivation for various choices. Irish nationalism, and nationalism in general, is yet another subject. As well, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is a meditation on larger, more existential and/or human questions of fate, of choices made and their consequences, of trust in a variety of incarnations, of ends versus means, of sacrifice, of lost opportunities and the fear of reaching out for new ones. I know this all sounds pretty vague, but there is such a lovely unfolding of story and theme here that I really have no desire to dilute the reader’s pleasure in letting it unfold before them.
And not just a wonderful blossoming of story but also of character, as we see these characters slowly, oh so slowly, open up to possibilities. And we see as well how those possible futures can be shut down, by themselves or others. Again, oh so vague, I know, but once more, I’d rather not ruin things for the reader. Suffice to say that both Nathaniel and Keita are deeply drawn characters, each of whom we meet as a bit of a cipher and each of whom we slowly grow to understand and empathize with. Grace is perhaps not so sharply drawn, or perhaps, more accurately is all too sharp — all edges and desperation and bitterness, perfectly understandable in her current situation (an all too realistic and representative one for women of the time). I do wish we’d seen a bit more of her other sides, but she holds her own as a full character despite that. Finally, I have to give a nod to Pulley for creating a clockwork octopus that feels so much a living character that one chuckles over its actions and worries about its future with nearly the same sense of emotional response one has for the human characters.
Beyond plot and character, Pulley shows a deftness of storytelling via lots of excellent small touches, as with Nathaniel’s response to modern technology: “[he] could not stop thinking about what the proper name for a fear of big machinery was. He couldn’t remember, but he had had it when he first came to London. It had been worst at railroad crossings beside overground stations, where the steam engines would stop, fuming, ten feet away.” This is one of the few times I can recall an author referencing what was a pretty common feeling at the start of the Industrial Age; instead, people are too often portrayed as just taking in stride all this sudden strength and power that surrounds them.
Pacing is nicely varied throughout, with moments of high drama and tension. Overall I would describe it as slow, but not as a complaint; it’s slow like a nicely peaceful, thoughtful stroll in along a quiet lane rather than slow as in looking up at the clock waiting for your meeting to end. Despite that, the novel never lagged and I always felt Pulley was in full control of the pacing.
I’m not sure why I didn’t love it, as it’s just the type of book that usually grabs me that way — quiet, character-driven, some larger themes, a bit of history, some magical realism. The language may have fallen a little flat. Perhaps I needed a bit more from Grace. Or maybe it was just poor timing. Whatever the reason, it was still a warmly immersive read and one that stuck with me for a while. Recommended.
I also really enjoyed this while I was reading it, although I found it strangely hard to remember much of the details after I was done. That may be the effect the book has, as Bill said, of being really good without totally grabbing you. I agree that Grace never felt as real or as necessary to me as Mori or Thaniel. Still, a charming book set in an interesting and detailed London. And there’s a clockwork octopus!
When a clockwork octopus is your favourite character in a book, you know you’re onto a winner. Katsu (said octopus) is the creation of Keita Mori, the enigmatic watchmaker around whom events of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street centre. Natasha Pulley’s debut is as intricate as the clockwork it describes, and the plot runs just as smoothly.
Thaniel Steepleton has spent the last four years in the soul-destroyingly dull position of a telegraphist for the Home Office. He sends part of his wage to his widowed sister and her children. He lives in an unremarkable building and leads an altogether unremarkable life. That is, until someone leaves a watch in his apartment with the maker’s mark of K. Mori on it. The watch is apparently unremarkable too, until it saves Thaniel’s life by sounding an alarm that warns him of a bomb blast outside Scotland Yard.
So Thaniel seeks the watchmaker. Keita Mori, a softly-spoken Japanese baron, is the Willy Wonka of the clockwork world. Mechanical fireflies flicker in his garden; a clockwork octopus with a magpie-like tendency to steal shiny things wanders round his house. Mori’s loneliness mirrors Thaniel’s own, and he soon agrees to take up the spare room Mori is renting.
It’s clear from the outset of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street that there is something extraordinary about Mori. Without even mentioning his clockwork masterpieces (which include golden pears that sprout creeper vines and birds that fly around his workshop), strange coincidences unfold around him. Thaniel accidentally gets a promotion. He is randomly invited to play in an opera. Add to that the fact Mori is almost disturbingly prescient, and it becomes obvious there is far, far more to the watchmaker than meets the eye.
I can’t remember the last time I read such a charming novel. In equal parts beguiling and whimsical, Pulley weaves elements of steampunk, mystery, fantasy, historical, literary and speculative fiction into a seamless whole, no mean feat for a debut author. Her characters are equally complex. Thaniel’s progression from dull-eyed telegraphist to a man who returns to his music and sees the world in colour is incredibly moving. As is his relationship with Mori. What’s more, settings that leapfrog between London, Oxford and Japan make for an immersive read. The level of detail in Pulley’s prose is pretty astounding (down to the hissing of the gas lampposts), and while it sometimes feel as though she’s trying to showcase all the historical research she’s done, it’s on the whole very impressive.
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is, at its heart, a mystery, which keeps the pace ticking along nicely. We are kept guessing to the very end as to Mori’s involvement in the bomb plot, and while many of the plot threads are neatly tied up, the questions surrounding Mori are still left unanswered. I was immensely pleased (and unsurprised) to discover there’s a sequel in the pipeline. Read this book. You’ll be completely won over by its clockwork charm.