The Magic Toyshop, by Angela Carter
This dark and twisty tale is a deliciously monstrous gothic read, told in the tradition of a Victorian fairytale (or nearly). There are orphans and incest and poverty, and a house that may or may not be haunted. In the creepy confines of the toyshop, it seems a place where fairy tales themselves will come to life. Carter actually references many gothic tales, like Bluebeard and Jane Eyre, so we are meant to be thinking along those lines.
Melanie is fifteen when she realizes she is a woman - and her world falls apart. Her wealthy parents are killed in a plane crash, leaving Melanie and her two younger siblings destitute. They are cast out of their sheltered upper middle class life into deepest South London, to live with their reclusive uncle, a toymaker and puppeteer. They meet their in-laws, the extremely Irish Jowles family, and eventually join forces with them against their villainous uncle.
Although the book is set in 1960s London, it's easy to be confused and think that it's set much earlier. Throughout there is a strange otherworldly feel, hard to ground it in the real world. Also, Uncle Philip runs both his shop and household like a throwback to the good ol' Victorian days, which is quaintly charming in terms of his shop and avidly not in terms of how he terrorizes his family. This out of joint with reality feeling is also due in part to the Victorian style of the novel: a plucky girl becomes an orphan, miseries befall her, she struggles to find a way to survive in the cold hard world (you will also see a great deal of resemblances to Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, and I wonder how much this book influenced that more modern, but still very Victorian, series).
The other major aspect of The Magic Toyshop is that this is a coming of age novel, in a subtler, more eerie way than other similar coming of age novels introduced at that time. We begin the book as Melanie wanders into the family garden wearing her mother's wedding dress, and there she discovers herself, and discovers the universe, and discovers that she is not ready, entirely, for either of these things.
"When she was fifteen, she stood lost in eternity wearing a crazy dress, watching the immense sky ... Which was too big for her, as the dress had been. She was too young for it. The loneliness seized her by the throat and suddenly she could not bear it."
The rest of the novel is how Melanie very slowly steps into the shoes of a woman from a girl. She hardly rushes to become the new protectress of her younger siblings, but rather lets her Aunt Margaret and Uncle Philip take over the care of Victoria and Jonathon (respectively). Her attraction to her new brother in law Finn is entirely balanced out by her repulsion of him, as once again she is on the verge of being a woman, and yet, not quite.
"Finn inserted his tongue between her lips, searching tentatively for her own tongue inside her mouth. This moment consumed her. She choked and struggled, beating her fists against him, convulsed in horror at this sensual and intimate connection, this rude encroachment on her physical privacy, this humiliation."
Her relationship with Finn swings back and forth between it being her worst nightmare, and that which will save her. It takes absolute catastrophe in order to get her there to the other side, to a place where she is ready to play at mother, but at fifteen she still hardly has the maturity to be a matriarch. All her and Finn have in the end is wild surmise, a romantic prospect that I quite like.
Setting is very important to create the singular mood of the novel - such as the eerie deadness of the puppet theatre, or the "graveyard of a pleasure ground" where Melanie and Finn have their first kiss. I was thinking while reading this that if it were to be made into a film, it should be done by Tim Burton, it has that otherworldy nightmarish feel. (And then I saw it was made into a film in the 80s in Australia and I cannot even imagine how trippy that must be.)
The Magic Toyshop also has an intriguing use of magical realism, where fantastical elements are incorporated into an otherwise realistic novel. In one scene Melanie opens a drawer to find a severed hand. It is never explained, although it is the incident that draws her closer into the sphere of the Jowles family and finally makes her feel like she belongs (rather ironically). Or the painting of the dog such realistic copy of the real thing that in the end we are left to question which dog was ever the real one. Better literary scholars than I have dissected the meaning of these elements (I especially liked the discussion here on The City of Lost Books), but I like to think it helps to uplift what would be a rather depressing book about despairing class differences into a more nebulous, fantastical feel.
I enjoyed The Magic Toyshop immensely, but I think you need to be in a specific mood for it. This is the book for those who love gothic novels and are looking for something a little bit different, with heaps of gorgeous writing.