Natasha Pulley’s debut novel is a delightful read, marking her as an author to look out for in 2017.
Shortlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is set in Victorian England and Japan, telling the story of the unlikely friendship between Nathaniel Steepleton, a home office telegraphist, and Keita Mori, a Japanese watchmaker. Returning home from work one day, Nathaniel discovers someone has left a mysterious golden pocket watch in his flat. Unnerved by the suspicious little present, Nathaniel decides to keep the watch while he investigates how the watch came to be in his belongings, unbeknown to Nathaniel is that this particular watch will not only save his life, but change it forever.
Pulley perfectly captures the magic of Mori’s watchmaking through the eyes of the very straight-laced Nathaniel, as he is welcomed into Mori’s world of limitless clockwork invention, including the endearing clockwork octopus, Katsu. However, Nathaniel quickly learns that there is more to Mori than meets the eye and not all is as wonderful as his clockwork creations. Alongside Nathaniel, the reader slowly discovers fragments of Mori’s past life, which appears to contradict the humble, lonely man that Mori has become, this in turn provides a certain ‘thriller-esque’ to Pulley’s novel. The enigma of Mori as a character has been highly crafted by Pulley, and without such an enigmatic character, the book would not survive (I mean the title of the book refers to him after all…) but it is quite easy to forget that this book is not solely Nathaniel’s story, but rather he is a cog (see what I did there!) that keeps Mori’s story developing.
Unfortunately not all is perfect with Pulley’s novel.
During the novel we are introduced to Grace Carrow, an Oxford-trained physicist, and although you cannot knock her determination she is in fact quite a nuisance. It is obvious what Carrow is in terms of a plot device, but Pulley forces the character far too much, and plays up a bit too transparently to the idea of liking a character due to their independent will in the face of a repressive society – in this case a feminist in a patriarchal society. Some of Carrow’s motives and choices seem too far-fetched to come from character Pulley has presented us with, which does indeed ruin the potential of the overall novel.
I am still undecided of whether the simplicity of the plot in the face of the potential Pulley’s ideas actually works. Some of the novels themes and ideas appear short-lived; we are introduced to an eccentric watchmaker but we do not get much more than glimpses of his past, but then maybe this is what works for Pulley, as she demonstrates control to what could easily be an over-the-top story, one that is ridiculous rather than one which is not light years away from reality.
Even though I have my qualms with the novel, it is without a doubt an impressive, strong debut from Pulley, who is inviting us back into the world of magical clockwork using a different time and character next summer.
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is available in paperback in all major bookshops.