“The Dollmaker” by Nina Allan

 

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Thanks to Quercus Books and NetGalley for providing me with an Advance Review Copy in exchange for an honest review.

What a wonderfully strange and unusual novel.

Ostensibly this novel is about a dollmaker called Andrew and his pen pal Bamber. Andrew is on a cross country journey to meet with her after many years of correspondence. Sounds simple enough right? Wrong. So very wrong.

This is really a series of stories within a story. Bamber, a woman of indeterminate age is researching a Polish Writer and Dollmaker named Ewa Chaplin. Some of Ewa’s short stories are interspersed in the narrative as well as Bamber’s letters to Andrew.

It’s really difficult to talk too much about the plot of this novel without spoiling its myriad twists and turns. Its mysteries unfold slowly, and there were times I was reading that I found myself wondering if I had missed something e.g. Andrew will mention someone by their first name, as if we were supposed to know them, and I wouldn’t remember if the character had been introduced yet (they hadn’t). This is absolutely a deliberate choice by the author but more than once I felt completely confused and with that in mind, it’s perhaps not a book for people who dislike ambiguity or red herrings. I was over halfway through before I really started to ‘get’ it.

The real strength of the novel for me was Ewa’s short stories, a series of unnerving, dark and downright bizarre stories. ‘The Elephant Girl’ in particular made for really twisted and disturbing reading. Even now I’m trying to remember which were excerpts from Ewa’s writings and which were accounts of Bamber or Andrew’s pasts. I also enjoyed Andrew’s accounts of his quest to find Bamber and the descriptions of the humdrum towns he visits along the way. I also quite like dolls even though I know they are quite creepy to some, an uncanniness the author uses to great effect in the novel.

I didn’t dislike anything in the novel as such, but I did find it a frustrating read at times. It’s a clever and tricksy book and quite unlike anything I’ve read before. It’s the kind of book that if someone asked you describe it, you’d be a bit like this

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If you like novels different from the norm, I’d highly recommend this book. I feel like I want to read it again now that I’ve read the whole thing to pick up on some of the parallels and little clues from the beginning. I don’t usually read books more than once unless I absolutely adore them (Wuthering Heights and M.R. James’ Ghost Stories are really the only ones that fall into this camp) so that’s saying a lot. The cover is gorgeous too and I liked the inclusion of elements of dollmaking in the chapter illustrations…even the creepy doll eye.

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