This is a book for cold winter nights and cosy evenings with crackling fires. Possibly stupidly, I read it during one of England’s rare mini-heatwaves. The story enchanted me despite the weather. The icy streets Robert Dinsdale describes made a nice change from my overheated home.
The Toy Makers is a tale of sibling rivalry, magic and war. It’s based around Papa Jack’s Emporium – a London toy store. The Emporium opens each year with the first frost and closes when snowdrops appear.
Cathy, a pregnant teenager, is on the run from her disapproving family. She sees the store’s advert (Are you lost? Are you afraid? Are you a child a heart?) and hopes to find a sanctuary. Cathy and her unborn child become tangled in the lives of the Godman family – toymakers Papa Jack, and his sons, dashing Kaspar and insecure Emil.
The slow-paced writing style is vivid, descriptive and packed with magic that’s never fully explained. In a labyrinth of aisles, toys come alive. Toy soldiers have minds of their own, patchwork dogs play, paper trees grow into forests and tardis-style Wendy Houses are bigger on the inside.
The awe-inspiring games are balance with darker themes. Papa Jack combats cruelty by reminding adults of childhood happiness. Yet, there’s conflict within his home. His sons never grow out of their rivalry and compete for his approval.
This story is wonderful but desperately sad. Toys aside, it’s not for children. It looks at the way the First World War ripped families and lives apart. There are multiple descriptions of physical and mental injuries.
The two brothers sum up the different attitudes to conflict – the home front’s ill-informed naivety and the horrific suffering experienced by the soldiers.
While humans die on the battlefield, toy soldiers are forced to fight again and again on the shop floor. Kind-hearted Cathy is always hopeful, but in the end the family can’t escape the impact of the real and the toy war.
Verdict: If you haven’t read this fantastical story yet, give it a go. It’s beautifully written and heart wrenchingly tragic.