38 thoughts on “The Dollmaker – Nina Allan

  1. “The only thing
    That can bring me joy now is your death.”

    From a poem called The Dwarf translated by Nina Allan, and we are also bestowed with stats on children’s experience of dolls dying… a sort of wishful stets. And then…via Chaucer…

    Andrew, a boy of course, nicknamed dwarf by his fellow choirboys at school, yearns for a doll called Marina Blue, against his father’s discouragement. And then his knowing, later in life, Clarence, a woman of course. I infer. I infer much of the old-fashionedness here, like the heavy duty green radiator, and a boy’s pleasure in his doll, captivating both him and the reader. And the serious doll magazine called Ponchinella, not Pulcinella nor, of course, Pinocchio. There will be no spoilers in my forthcoming review, a review to be eked out. Nor can I hope to cover the plot in full, anyway. Just wanted to express straightaway my renewed passion for yet another Nina Allan book, one that already promises much.

  2. 2

    “The Horsham postmark was dated July 1972. The recipient was a Mrs Hilda O’Gorman, of East Mersea, Essex.”

    …though the geography here is London and Cornwall, not Sussex and Essex, as Andrew corresponds with a woman called Bramber in Cornwall. One of her letters to Andrew also tells us some sketchy details about with whom she lives in a presumably large house in Bodmin. Will we see him visit her? They correspond about Ewa Chaplin, a Dollmaker who, apparently, did not believe that her dolls should always look pretty. In fact that they should look uncanny, I infer. Wasn’t there a doll called Bambi in Thomas Ligotti’s ‘The Frolic’ and other dolls elsewhere in his literature? My rhetorical question, not this book’s.

  3. BF3A8BBF-A13E-46A5-9E44-405DD58C6DBA3

    “Was I simply a doll to him, one of his rude mechanicals?”

    Some of the most striking, almost ennui-riven, dead-eyed views of a boy growing up and his sexual submissions and fey attentions to and from both genders, as he plans to travel to Cornwall. Meticulous, quaint descriptions of where he stays in a faceless corporate hotel. This book is just up my Reading street, no mistake.

    “I had originally planned to pass through Reading without stopping,…”

    Surely not. And indeed I stop here and look forward to reading one of Ewa Chaplin’s stories when I next pick up this book.

  4. ’The Duchess’ by Ewa Chaplin
    translated from the Polish by Erwin Blacher 2008

    “Why should the socially permitted length of a person’s hair be determined by their gender?”

    So far, an intriguing story of an actress with a strict husband in erstwhile times, a woman who meets a disabled dwarf and falls in love with him. Echoed by an old painting by a painter who painted odd things, a painting of her likeness with a dwarf. There is a lot more detail I cannot cover. And I am genuinely enthralled. Hard to imagine how all this is going to pan out. Strangely this book resides in mutual coincidental synergy, I know not why, with Melmoth by Sarah Perry that I real-time reviewed relatively recently.

    Read this long Ewa Chaplin-ascribed story, so far, up to: “It did not bear thinking about.”

    • “The stiletto has been a staple of Italian melodrama for centuries. Interesting that someone has chosen to use it in a modern context.”

      Except it does not feel modern. The actress and the way she deals with her mouth-and-trousers cad of a husband and her wheelchaired lame lover, either by deadly plan or faltering with lip upon a cup that does not quite reach it? Blending by this sort of reaching out or hawling, as I call it, into the Gestalt of the painting of herself I mentioned above as the Duchess (in ermine stole) and the famous Webster play, blending them by her casting all characters into a play for a theatre of the mind, involving a wanton woman who had some connection with our Duchess’ own dear dead brother. Intriguing how this will fit into Andrew’s journey, outside of this Chaplin story in his different Allan story of dolls. Thinking myself aloud, without too much thought, I feel. Perhaps I am the one in yet another quieter story, peering into a dollhouse as if it is a book? Velazquez, Tolstoy and Malfi, notwithstanding,

  5. “On top of the bookcase sat a doll. I gazed at her steadily and she gazed back. I couldn’t get over the feeling that she seemed to know me.”

    We are now allowed to read a letter from Bramber to Andrew, a letter written before he met her in person, I guess. Tells of the genesis of her doll collecting followed by a strangely abrupt transition to another period in her life and the people she knew or knows. Captivating stuff. And, by the way, ‘dwarf’ is indeed an ugly word. As is ‘stuff’, on second thoughts.

  6. 088AA87C-FFEE-4B8F-87A4-A93EB288EB164

    “There was a row of mismatched wooden chairs outside, like rejects from a dentist’s waiting room.”

    Except, now back with Andrew’s onward journey from Reading, we are in a world with dodgy phone signals, a world more modern than we feel it is by instinct. A delightful chapter, as we follow Andrew — reminded as I am that he is a dwarf or midget whatever the tolerance of being just a ‘shortarse’ or something that warrants unwarranted notice — towards a small place called Wade near Warminster (Warminster where my own wife is going to visit a friend in a week or two), and Wade reminds me of several small places I have visited with near empty pubs and quaint shops. (Clun, Shropshire, is one such a place where my wife and I honeymooned in 1970). Andrew (on his way to visiting Bramber as some sort of love crusade or pilgrim’s progress?) is staying at the aforementioned pub and is shown to his choice of rooms by someone who reminds him of his old flame at school. He also explores Wade and discusses a doll in a bric a brac shop… He rings Clarence, too, despite the lack of signal. Is Clarence an old flame, too? Now with a daughter, one with special needs? And a husband who flies places…

    ‘He missed his flight.’ Clarence sighed. ‘There aren’t any seats until tomorrow afternoon.’

  7. Amber Furness
    by Ewa Chaplin
    translated from the Polish by Erwin Blacher 2008

    “‘Let’s see.’ His fingertips were square, the nails beautifully cut and filed. They could have been a doll’s hands, they were so perfect, or a storefront mannequin’s.”

    Amber is the third person singular narrator, she with arthritic seeming fingers. His fingers, Tessmond, a dwarf, fingers more delicate as a shopkeeper of clocks, and a brooch among other brooches and so forth, a brooch designed by someone Amber had studied and that she now needs to buy.

    “A clock is the only instrument specifically constructed for measuring a quantity that is intangible.”
    A silver winding?

    Read up to: “Tessmond nodded, and they both smiled.”

    I will not further itemise the plot of this entrancing story – one Andrew must surely be reading alongside us.

    • “The pianist had a bent, bony body, hunched over the keys, limbs akimbo like the legs of a gigantic insect.”

      Dabbling with Diabelli? Then a song sung by a bear? This story by Chaplin seems to be slowly imbuing me, also imbuing Andrew – and even imbuing the whole book’s author? – imbuing us with things surreptitiously about the nature of dwarves over time, even the nature of time itself, amid Amber’s seeming Platonic relationship with old but ageless Tessmond, and the more than Platonic (or less than?) one with Jaen. Is like creeping up to that room at the top of the house you never thought existed. But does the word ‘transition’ in the context of Jaen mean what it often means today?

      Read up to: “Little by little her breathing steadied, and at last she slept.”

    • “The quayside hotel in Juno will have been alerted. They will set aside rooms for us.”

      Read this Chaplin story to its end now. Couldn’t resist finishing it today, rather than leaving it till tomorrow. I wonder what Andrew thinks of it. It is as if Amber was enticed on a voyage to the Dream Archipelago. She didn’t go. Even stranger things happen, and I am not sure whether I have suddenly entered an alternate world or this story has. And if Amber is pregnant, who is the father? And what has happened in the town? Who am I?

  8. “It would be easy to pretend it was a big, decisive moment, an epiphany, but it wasn’t. It was just a coincidence.”

    We are now allowed to read another letter from Bramber to Andrew, background on the nature of the institution where she lives in Cornwall, her study of Ewa Chaplin, and Chaplin’s dolls, and other items of her backstory. Why she would write all this to someone who is still as yet a stranger to her is further background in itself, I guess

  9. 5

    “, checking the road signs as we approached Salisbury, where I would be leaving the coach and catching the train for Exeter.”

    ‘I remember when Debenhams had its own haberdashery department,’ Ursula said. ‘The one in Harrogate did, anyway. It’s gone now.’”

    Andrew, still on his journey, thinks of another old flame, if that is the right term, which it isn’t — Ursula with a transparent mauve connected, and the feel of various fabrics, and doll-making, a manual Singer (a spin by hand), haberdashery, underwear, too, and thoughts of peeling off of such, a purging-by-handmade-doll, in guilty handmade pleasuring, backstory thoughts of Wil, too. Have I mentioned him in this review before? I forget. Will not check.

  10. “Mrs Hubbard was enormously fat. She wore vast tent dresses patterned with pagodas or windmills or oversized flowers,…”

    We are allowed to read another letter from Bramber in Bodmin to Andrew, in the past or while he is still on his journey towards her? Must be the former, I guess. Were emails invented then? Though the letter itself dots about in time. A bit stream of consciousness, it seems to me, but, if true, we gain a bigger and bigger picture of Bramber and the people around her, and she has been taught to use a computer, I see. More and more about Ewa Chaplin’s backstory, too. It all seems rather appropriate, if strange, for us to be apprised gradually of these things as Andrew’s first meeting with her, I assume, draws nearer. I look forward to reading another fine story by Ewa Chaplin, as I have slightly skimmed ahead to see what is next in this book.

  11. The Elephant Girl
    by Ewa Chaplin
    translated from the Polish by Erwin Blacher 2008

    “The bad fairy was not really bad, Mila saw. She was just an unwelcome reminder of what was true.”

    An antisocial, disabled and/or talented girl called Zhanna enters a class when the teacher Mila is pregnant. This so far powerful tale seems more do with the mental and bodily anxieties of Mila, than with those of Zhanna. More to do with a fairy story by Charles Perrault than with Le Nœud de Vipères by François Mauriac.
    Pregnancy another form of dollmaking?

    Read up to, so far: “When Mila asked if she regretted the abortion, Varya said no.”

    • “She could still hear the music, the long meandering coda that had always seemed to her like the sounds of someone talking in their sleep.”

      The rest of The Elephant Girl is poignant, with beautiful piano music connecting two monsters, one actual, the other potential, assuming the latter one comes to fruition by such a connection or is halted by it. From Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata to this story’s Chopin waltzes, music described as or by words. Words giving birth to music. Some modern ‘classical’ music seems ugly, but I somehow love its beauty. Beauty and ugliness in synergy. But which is which, I ask? Some of these thoughts are mine, not necessarily the story’s. Who knows yet what the fruit of meaning inside it thinks.
      As an aside, I love John Field’s Nocturnes.

  12. 6

    “, chiding myself for reading too much reality into what was self-evidently a work of fiction.”

    Yet, I still follow Andrew, in suspended disbelief, having now reached Exeter. A visit to a doll museum while in transit and reading work about Ewa Chaplin as well as work by her. With her dolls airbrushed? Her dolls shown in this museum… Yet the dolls I see today with Andrew make me at least think of eternal witnesses as miniature wandering Melmoths, somehow making it unnecessary for me to worry that Andrew and Bramber have not traded photographs of each other, before their meeting…and that he must already have inferred from her letters what sort of institution he travels towards or, rather, wanders towards.

  13. “If people know you want something it makes it easier for them to take it away from you.”

    A much shorter letter from Bramber to Andrew. Short and sweet. (But is the expression ‘short and sweet’ always used ironically?)

  14. 7

    “Dolls were my life, but I never dreamed they would one day become my living.”

    Engaging material on Andrew’s career with dolls, including the successful, but mixed-feeling, line of troll dolls. Also his earlier struggle with office life, being a dwarf. Yet, he becomes more and more accepted. Then thoughts related to his lady friend Clarence’s special-needs daughter, the latter learning to play the piano. That Bergman film comes to mind again. And Andrew’s possibly confused sexuality of a vicarious nature, becoming hard like glazed bisque porcelain, the porcelain of a scarred doll’s head he once tried to mend or of just dollish hands, giving ‘weight and substance’, I infer, at Andrew’s imagining Clarence with her husband…or rather his imagining them vice versa…
    Confused reviewing, too, no doubt?

    “‘I don’t like to compare dolls with human beings,’ I added. ‘The two are very different.’”

  15. 5C9E1E7E-BFB7-43C6-AD00-F5FF0013566B
    “…a dwarf, although it took some time to work this out, because the actor who played him was actually quite tall. The only way you could tell was by watching the way the other characters reacted to him.”

    A long letter granted for our judicious perusal from Bramber to Andrew, and remarkable how she sees him, still a stranger, as her current closest confidante. With her thoughts on Othello, and a play based on an earlier Ewa Chaplin story we were allowed to read earlier alongside Andrew, and on her past would-be confidante (or once would-be lover?) Helen.
    And Velazquez.



    “…where the Ibsen twins lived, though the twins and their bramble-clad, peeling monument of a home were still years in my future.”

    Bramble-clad and Bramber, a man in Andrew’s or Drew’s past called Run and then “running water” after sex, then telling someone else in Exeter about “running away from London” — born to run — ‘to rescue the woman he loves’ and when Andrew tells us here about the flimsy air-mail paper on which Bramber writes the letters we read alongside him, I began to wonder about his letters to her that we do not become privileged to see at all, at least as yet. This inferred need of Andrew and Bramber to become “trusted intimates”, before meeting each other. He bought an ordnance map in Smiths to know where her Bodmin institution was situated. If it was as if in the internet age he could have looked at Google maps and, also, sent these numbered chapters by email to her as he journeys towards her. Maybe he does somehow, via osmosis or music like Scarlatti’s? And lost dolls once given as gifts. But back to Run, who lived in Swanns Lane…

    “On the second Christmas of our acquaintance I presented him with Adrien, a narrow-waisted, long-limbed doll in the traditional black-and-white silks of a pierrot.”

  17. “As if I’d found the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle that had been there in the box all the time.”

    Two letters now from Bramber to Andrew, one after the other, which I suppose seems appropriate because Edwin, a flame she writes about, talks, as reported in these letters, to Bramber about parallel universes, and plays fast and loose with emotions vis a vis a Helen and herself in each letter, and talks of ghost trains in one and the Beeching railway cuts in the other. I remember the Beeching cuts. One day in this world, the next day in the next.

    “Edwin liked to say there was no such thing as the future anyway, just a continuous present, only with some of it too far away to make out the details.”

    “Danger can be ordinary, though. Something that doesn’t seem threatening at all, until it sinks its teeth in.”

  18. Happenstance
    by Ewa Chaplin
    translated from the Polish by Erwin Blacher 2008

    “Wil was always dropping the names of films and books – he was the kind of person who feels more alive in invented worlds than in the real one.”

    And the narrator woman’s Aunt Lola with whom she stays; a famous writer, Lola — “On the right side of her face, where the other eye should have been, there was just a pinkish, wrinkled like a thumb print in Plasticine.” — while the he narrator herself is a make-up artist, but making up what? All characters here are perhaps fake or fae changelings of themselves, and between characters in sections of this book! A bit like an archipelago of floating stories between other linking stories. Between the various readers, too, incredible as that may seem to just one of those readers at any one time, or between reading one story’s ending or a different ending of the same story. All I know is that this is my favourite Ewa Chaplin story so far, one I couldn’t put down midway, as I remember having done with the others, with their plots then perhaps having escaped me. A story called happenstance about a story called happenstance.

  19. 9

    “I found it difficult to sleep after reading ‘Happenstance’.”

    Andrew, or whoever is writing about Andrew in the first person singular, seems to want to reassure me that I was along the right lines in what I was writing about it all above, but did I actually use the word ‘coincidence’? Also does he now by chance encounter the Ibsen twins and their mother (whoever they happen to be?) at his second visit to the doll museum in Exeter, a museum that provided a cabinet left-open, equally by chance? Or happenstance.


    Followed by sight of yet another letter from Bramber to Andrew…
    Wherein she talks about her mother’s erstwhile unhappiness — a new green wallpaper syndrome…to replace the Gilman yellow?

    “Her unhappiness was so familiar it was part of the scenery, like the ugly green wallpaper in the downstairs toilet that my father kept meaning to paint over but never got round to. No one liked it but we were used to it. In some ways the house wouldn’t have felt right if it were no longer there.”

  20. 3F0351EE-3BFB-46F5-A327-970ABE8ACB38
    “The train called at numerous one-horse stations along the route, disgorging clumps of dishevelled passengers on to mostly empty platforms.”

    “At least if I backed out now there would still be our letters. Letters contained worlds after all, you could read anything into them.”

    Andrew reaches the environs of Bodmin, at last.
    A remarkable unmissable chapter, where I learn so much more, but realise how little I know. The anxiety of the soul, an angst only helped by art, the pilfered or pilfering artist? His telephone-box call to the institution whence Bramber writes her letters to him. Suffice to say, that I am entranced, and worried, by the haunting atmosphere of the inn where Andrew stays prior to his planned visit to Bramber and his evening tour through the streets. The queue for fish and chips, et al.
    Just one thought, though. The word Bodmin. Bodkin, Bodice. Bode, body. Has doll-like semantic field? Manikin. Min short for Miniature? (My happenstance review yesterday of a story about ‘miniatures’ with that word in its title: here.) Calling someone doll, a bimbo or babe? And, oh yes, Andrew meets Binnie in the fish and chip queue.
    Is the photo above – a design in this book – a cluster of bare bodkins?

    “A quest without hidden dangers is no quest at all.”

  21. “It’s impossible to keep anything secret here for more than five minutes.”

    Another letter from Bramber to Andrew, and consequently I need to watch my step, now being made at least vaguely privy to her life’s spoiler. I thought at first that her announced visitor at the Bodmin house was to turn out later in the letter to be Andrew himself, and she was writing a letter to him about it, not realising it had been Andrew!
    Since yesterday, I have learnt that there is a general idiomatic expression of ‘going Bodmin’.

  22. The Upstairs Window
    by Ewa Chaplin
    translated from the Polish by Erwin Blacher 2008

    “‘What’s the difference between a spy and a secret agent?’ he asked me. It sounded like the set-up for a joke.”

    This set-up, too, a joke, if a serious one, about life and its bifurcations, from Dr. No to McEwan. I wonder whether this totalitarian state story is in Gestalt or alternate synchrony with the rest of Chaplin and Allan – with cruel punishments for various bodily art representations, and a third Iraq war, for example, a narrator who is a journalist or is he a secret agent kept secret from us? A combo of relationships we need to fit together, so much like our world, so unlike, it too. The ‘creation of the world’ painting of a ‘cunt’, more Courbet than Schiele or Schilling; the meaning of art dependent on who is looking at it, your feet killing you, the dreams of an exiled artist, our lives turning upon moments rather than epochs…

    “The words seemed both mine and not mine. The sensation was strange to me and curiously exhilarating. I couldn’t help wanting to know how the story might end.”

  23. 11, 12 & 13

    “This is the proverbial it.”

    And two further letters from Bramber to Andrew. A visit to Dawlish, too, perhaps appropriately, by visual assonance — and latterly, Peckham, where I first met this book’s ‘Artist’.

    “— but even dwarfs dare to dream.”

    What did you do with the other six? Did I say that or someone else? There is something veiled or filtered by self-deprecation in this story, a story controlled overtly by self-imaged/-imagined Andrew, if not controlled, in effect, by the surrogate artist he pilfered, almost kept as if he is pregnant with her, or, rather, her with him, and he plans to return her anonymously, the artist who arguably pilfered two of Chaplin’s stories from herself … and it seems at least partly and disarmingly significant that, by synchronous happenstance, I read ‘The Unmasking’ (reviewed here) just an hour or so before finishing this book!

    I was satisfied by the denouement of this book, an unknotting or tying-up that did not always have what one might have considered to be the obviously predicted denouement, while, in retrospect, it was obliquely and, in its own unique way, perfectly tied-up. Tarr and Fether, John Cowper Powys ‘Inmates’, eat your hearts out!

    I felt the moving archipelago of its fiction-and-truth synchronies did make eventual landfall, amid a word-musical dying-fall, a land mass whereon I can walk with considered and contemplative confidence. Two of those ‘islands of thought’ turned out to be an old fashioned masted ship and a pre-Raphaelite vision.

    “…above all the promise of stories yet to be written and still to be read.”


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