Book review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, by Natasha Pulley

Natasha Pulley’s Watchmaker of Filigree Street carries a delightful and fun story along on lovely language with a note of the quirky and surreal, but it carries a hidden sting. It’s a deeply enjoyable read with all sorts of fascinating layers and is itself like a piece of complicated clockwork, which is clearly sort of the point. If you like intriguing books about people with hidden depths dealing with strange and befuddling circumstances, and you like books that craftily integrate social justice without clonking you on the head with it, I definitely recommend picking this up. (It’s out in paperback in May if you’re not a hardback kind of person.)

The story evolves around Nathaniel Steepleton, a civil servant in the late 1800s who gets drawn along a series of complicated, weird events that start with the discovery of a very nice gold watch in his rented room. The book isn’t historical fiction — it takes great license with history — but is generally set in a fairly recognisable 1800s London. Steepleton, a telegraph operator, finds himself pulled into a conspiracy of bombings and drama courtesy the watch, which saves his life and later lands him in trouble.

In a lot of senses, Steepleton is a pretty hapless guy, and his story almost reminds me of the black-and-white to colour transition in The Wizard of Oz, except that it happens much more stealthily. He starts out as a pretty bland man with a very ordinary, constrained life that limits his choices, following a very clear, set routine and never deviating from it. Then, slowly, colour begins to flush across his landscape, moving slowly at first and then more and more quickly, until he’s suddenly a very vibrant, complicated character.

The watch, you see, is the gift of its maker, Keita Mori, a Japanese immigrant who’s quite the wizard with clockwork, building beautiful, complicated, and fanciful constructions. It’s not just watches and clocks, but a complicated and clever clockwork octopus, beautiful clockwork birds and fireflies, fruits and trees. Mori has a delicate, fine, steady hand, but he also has a secret, and it’s one that brings the two men together while also potentially shoving them violently apart.

This is in the one sense a mystery, and in a very traditional English sort of way, but it’s also fantastical, about the works of Keita Mori and advances in the understanding of science. It’s also a love story, and a story about women fighting for liberation and recognition. Pulley really deftly weaves in discussions of social justice issues that apply to both past and present, making the story fuller, richer, without making them so ostentatious that they become distracting for the reader. You don’t come here to read about anti-Asian racism, and if it here inserted clunkily it would be an irritating turnoff, but instead, she weaves it so cleverly into the story that it is both vitally necessary and very elegant, making the reader pause at the end of the chapter in sudden realisation of what has just happened.

You can be sure that where there are mysteries and conspiracies, law enforcement look to immigrants, especially those who look markedly other and don’t behave in ways that fit the norm. This is a book that balances the real and the believable (an entirely mundane mystery, for example), with the fantastical, the quirky, the bizarre in a way that is extremely and delightfully appealing. Pulley strikes great notes as she interweaves the elements of the story and the needs of the characters, and it’s all done in quite lively, descriptive language and makes the whole thing deliciously dynamic. Even as I sense what is coming, I want to keep reading to see exactly how it’s going to happen and how she’s going to tell the story.

There are a few things about the story that don’t quite work for me, like the conveniently ahead of his time Nathaniel, who just happens to be more enlightened about the humanity of other people than his cohort, but the fact is that people like that did exist, and it is always good to tell their stories, so long as we don’t make them the only stories, erasing the truths of both past and present. For every civil servant who wasn’t alive with racism, who got on just fine with the Keita Moris of the world, there were, of course, others who felt very differently (and they’re in this book as well).

It can be tempting to modernise main characters in recognition of an audience that may not particularly enjoy reading a super-racist hero, and to challenge the ‘product of his time’ notion used to excuse racism and other vile behaviours in history (and in the present), but when it’s done too much, it comes off as erasure of difficult conversations, not to mention a bit saccharine. Pulley did seem to have a genuine desire to write a book that was both in the world but not of it, and to explore the boundaries of human relationships and emotions with that in mind, telling a believable story but also stretching expectations. In that framework, his suspiciously modern inclinations work well — not least because the hateful ones of his cohort also feel painfully modern, a reminder that the behaviours people label as a thing of the past are actually no such thing.

Image: Pocket Watch, Peter Miller, Flickr