Likely Stories: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

Jan 5, 2018

Mysterious story influenced by “Steam Punk” set in Victorian period and Japan


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

I have noticed that my distaste of a novel after ignoring my “Rule of 50” is a rather rare occurrence.  Trusted members of my book club, enthusiastically praised the novel.  My previous experiences with these club members were uniformly enjoyable – not only by me but by other members as well.  The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley is a case in point.  According to the jacket, “Natasha Pulley studied English literature at Oxford University and earned a creative writing M.A. at the University of East Anglia.  She lives in Cambridgeshire, England.  This is her first novel.”

Unfortunately, I found this novel confusing beyond all measure.  I restarted my reading three – yes three – times convinced I had missed some important items.  It was not until the last eleven pages, which comprise chapters 30 and 31, did I come to understand the relationships of the characters.  This turned the novel into a “who dun it” a genre I have never cared to read.  I sensed it was an example of “magic realism,” which I greatly admire.  Now, I am not so sure.

The characters are equally confusing.  Three Japanese men, Mori, Ito, and Yuki, and an Englishman, Thaniel, a telegraphic clerk turned spy, the daughter of a nobleman, Grace, and a man named Spindle, all serve to increase my confusion.  Thaniel expects an event, and he is looking out on a balcony, when Grace appears next to him.  Pulley writes, “‘I upset you before, didn’t I?’ she said.  ‘Because of the trees.’ / ‘No.  Leaving home jitters is all.’ / She paused.  ‘Mori still won’t come?’ / ‘He won’t come.’ / He looked side on at her.”  Another example occurs when Ito talks to Mori.  “Mori was in greys and old tweed and looking as usual, chronically unofficial. / ‘It’s white tie.  I did tell you, ten or twelve times.’ / ‘I would have if you hadn’t had one of your aides bring one for me’” (215).  On page 158, she writes, “He retreated and was about [to] fetch Mori.”

She also has a habit of explaining a bit too many things, for example, Grace visits Thaniel, and she says, “‘Good God, I feel like Cassandra!  I’ve been making true prophecies and still you don’t believe me’” (265).  This is only a minor annoyance, nevertheless, I am annoyed.  Pulley also mentions an “antique ticket inspector” (291).  Was Pulley referring to a person who sold “antique tickets”?  Or was he an elderly man who inspected old tickets? 

And then, I attended our book club for the December meeting, and Watchmaker was the book.  While there was some confusion about what was going on, we began to piece things together to come up with a reasonable understanding of the story.  The missing thread—in my mind anyway—revolved a mysterious activity called “Steam Punk.”  I had never heard if it, but it seems to be something akin to young people who dress, talk, and listen to Goth music.  A quick check of Wikipedia enlightened me.  Think of Jules Verne, the Monty Python film Brazil, and all the fascination in the Victorian period with new mechanical devices, especially those driven by steam.

Perhaps it was my state of mind, perhaps it was some careless reading.  The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley is an odd and confusing novel, but I am going to withhold the award of stars until I can find a block of time to try it again. 

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories.