Review: “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” By Natasha Pulley (Novel)

Well, since I’m taking an extended break from reading Clive Cussler novels, I thought that I’d check out a steampunk/magic realist novel from 2015 called “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” By Natasha Pulley.

I bought a second-hand copy of this book sometime last year for some reason that I can’t quite remember. Then it ended up languishing on the pile of books and DVDs next to my computer until about three weeks after I finally got back into reading books again.

So, let’s take a look at “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street”. This review will contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS, but I’ll try to avoid major ones.

This is the 2016 Bloomsbury (UK) paperback reprint of “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” that I read.

“The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” begins in Victorian London, when a Home Office telegraphist called Thaniel Steepleton returns to his lodgings after a long day at the office, only to discover that a mysterious intruder has left a gold pocket-watch in his room.

The mystery only seems to deepen when, several weeks later, an alarm goes off inside the watch that narrowly saves him from a terrorist attack. Shocked and bewildered, Thaniel decides to track down the man who made the strange watch…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is clever. It is also whimsical, dramatic, occasionally thrilling/suspenseful, bewildering, bittersweet and heartwarming. But, most of all, it is clever. This is probably due to being slightly out of practice with reading novels but, reading this novel felt like trying to play a computer game on a machine that is only just within the system requirements. I even had to take detailed notes at various points because I was worried about forgetting some small, but crucial, plot detail. But, this novel is worth persevering with because it is one of those books that will make you go… “wow!“.

Seriously, the atmosphere of about the first sixth or so of the book is utterly beautiful. It’s the kind of vivid, cosy, fascinating and whimsical thing that – in emotional terms- reminded me a bit of watching Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away“. As the story progresses, the story’s tone and atmosphere changes slightly – including elements of tragedy, suspense, mystery, comedy, fantasy, science fiction, unease and emotional drama. Not to mention that parts of this novel also read a little bit like a slowly to moderately paced thriller novel too.

And, did I mention that this book is clever too? In addition to lots of utterly brilliant descriptions, some clever name choices (eg: Filigree Street looks like filigree on the map, Grace Carrow is anything but graceful etc..) and some well-placed historical/scientific references (eg: Gilbert & Sullivan, a painting made by “a depressed Dutchman”, a character accidentally discovering part of Einstein’s theory of relativity etc..) – the story is also filled with what TV Tropes refers to as “fridge brilliance“.

This is where part of a story only makes sense after you’ve thought about it for a while. And there are so many examples of this here. For example, the antagonistic relationship between two characters won’t fully make sense until you reach a later part of the story (and then think about it). Or an event earlier in the story won’t make sense until you know something else about a particular character. This novel is like an intricate clockwork mechanism where everything happens for a reason. And, yes, this even includes the more fantastical elements of the story, which often follow some kind of logic.

The narration in this story is absolutely beautiful too. Pulley uses a style that is evocative of 19th century writing, but which is also still very readable to modern audiences. The narration is descriptive and rich, without ever really doing this just for the sake of showing off (unlike some “literary” novels). The narration also has a quirky playfulness to it that both adds to the stylised Victorian atmosphere of the story, whilst also serving as a vehicle for all sorts of brilliant observations/descriptions.

The novel’s characters are really interesting too, with all of the main characters (Thaniel, Mr. Mori, Grace, Matsumoto, Six and Katsu) being misfits in some way or another.

Not only is there a lot of characterisation in this novel but the relationships betwen the characters are also absolutely fascinating too. Although the characters’ relationships with each other can be prickly, bitter or depressing at times, the nature of friendship is a major theme in this novel and it leads to some absolutely beautiful and heartwarming moments.

There are also more themes in this story than you can shake a stick at, and all of them are handled in really interesting ways. Since it would take ages to talk about all of them, I’ll talk about three of the most important ones in this review.

Fate and free will are major themes in this story, and they are explored in all sorts of interesting ways. It’s difficult to talk about this without spoiling one of the most interesting parts of the story. But, to use a less spoilerific example, the story includes an adorable clockwork octopus called Katsu that has been designed to act in a randomised way. Yet, this random machine often acts like a sentient creature with a personality. And, as I write this review, I’ve just realised the paradox inherent in designing something to be random.

The story also focuses on the relationship between Victorian Britain and Meiji-era Japan too, with both being shown to be very similar in all sorts of subtle ways. For example, in the chapters set in Japan, the novel mostly eschews the typical stylised portrayal of samurai etc.. and often just talks about “castles”, “knights”,”lords”, “barons” etc.. in a way that is reminiscent of British history. Both countries’ languages are also shown to contain quirky historical oddities. Likewise, both Victorian Britain and Meiji-era Japan are shown to be grappling with modernisation. Plus, both countries are shown to have their fair share of stiflingly formal and oppressive traditions too.

Time is also a major theme in this story and it is explored in all sorts of interesting ways. To give a less spoilerific example – although the novel is set in the 19th century, there’s a lot of subtle modern stuff in there. Not only is the telegraph depicted as being similar to a modern instant messenger program at times, but the novel also contains a modern-style theme of terrorism and there are also a few other sneaky modern references too (such as the 19th century Lord Leveson appearing, presumably as a subtle topical reference to the 2011-12 Leveson Inquiry).

In terms of length, this story is absolutely perfect. Unlike many tome-like modern novels, this novel is a more sensible 318 pages in length, and each of these pages matters. Seriously, this novel crams as more storytelling, depth, richness, atmosphere and complexity into 318 pages than some writers would manage to include in 500.

All in all, this novel is absolutely beautiful. Yes, it probably isn’t for everyone and it can be a little bit of a challenge to read at times. But, it is adorably eccentric, subtly compelling, intelligently complex, intricately crafted, heartwarming, nervously suspenseful, and completely unique. It’s the kind of novel where you find yourself thinking “there really should be a film adaptation of this” before realising that even the most well-directed film would struggle to capture exactly what makes this novel so unique, immersive and fascinating.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a five.

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