Yorkshire born literary writer Robert Dinsdale delved into the past with his first two books, The Harrowing and Three Miles, delivering stirring historical tales set against the backdrop of war. His third, Little Exiles, took place post-WWII, whilst his fourth, Gingerbread, took tentative steps towards the expert blending of myth, fairytale and history that’s prevalent in his latest novel – the enchanting and unforgettable The Toymakers.
It doesn’t feel like a leap for Dinsdale to turn his hand to speculative fiction, more of a natural progression, something he’s been building up to over the years. The end result is nothing short of a masterpiece – a novel that’s mesmerising and completely charming, whilst never losing the historical accuracy or human emotion captured in his previous books.
To try and encapsulate The Toymakers is a difficult task. No description seems to do justice to the story or the exquisite detail that Dinsdale uses to tell it. This is a tale of an enchanting toy shop, of two brothers destined to be perpetual rivals, of a young runaway who finds a home in an unlikely place, and of men haunted by the ghosts of war. It begins in 1906, as a pregnant teenage girl, Cathy, runs away from home and arrives in London, where she answers an advert in a newspaper.
‘Are you lost? Are you afraid? Are you a child at heart?’ it reads. Cathy is all these things when she wanders into The Emporium and takes a position stocktaking and handling sales. In return she receives bed, board and a makeshift family of sorts, but more importantly, safety for herself and the innocent life growing inside her. Yet The Emporium only opens for winter and when the thaw comes, Cathy is extended an unexpected olive branch by the Godman brothers, Kaspar and Emil, sons of the shop’s owner and expert craftsman, Papa Jack.
The boys have been locked in an intense rivalry since they were children, both of them wanting to make the most spectacular toy to match their father’s legendary creations, in the hope that they’ll inherit the shop when he eventually bows out. Yet that’s not the only thing Emil and Kaspar vie for. In different ways, they strive for Cathy’s attention, and when she gives birth everything changes. Papa Jack shows her the story of his past through a magical toy box and she comes to understand the horrors that led to him escaping into this wondrous world of toys where everyone can become a child again. As the years pass, war descends and the story takes an altogether more heart-rending turn as the characters are swept up in the conflict and the consequences of warfare.
“If you’re going to make a toy, you have to hold one truth as inviolable above all others: that, once upon a time, all of us, no matter what we’ve grown up to do or who we’ve grown up to be, were little boys and girls, happy with nothing more than bouncing a ball against a wall.”
Reading The Toymakers is like being invited into The Emporium as a spectator witnessing from above the mechanics of how the shop works. This is a place where paper trees shed their leaves like real ones, where patchwork dogs appear like living, breathing animals and where objects are bigger on the inside than they look on the outside. The famed toy soldiers have individual stories, fighting battles of their own, and they come alive with Dinsdale’s descriptions. The store feels like an entire realm separate from the rest of the world and you’ll find yourself wanting to climb inside the pages and live within it.
Dinsdale strikes a delicate balance between light and dark themes. “Mightn’t it be, Cathy, that until you’ve seen the dark, you don’t really know the light?”, Kaspar asks, and it’s a message that resonates throughout the book. The first half reads like a reverie, playful and filled with the kind of magic most of us can only dream of as children, and certainly forget when we become adults. The second half, taking place ‘many years later’, is where the real emotion comes into play, revealing the tragedies, losses and realities of life that rob people of their innocence and sense of wonder. Put these parts together and you’ve got a gorgeous novel that hits all the right emotional beats.
The Toymakers is simply beautiful storytelling. It’ll sweep you along with the characters’ stories, delighting minds and breaking hearts with the impressive combination of fantasy and history. If there’s a more spellbinding speculative novel out there, I’ve yet to find it.