The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

Reviewed by Annabel

WatchmakerHats off to Bloomsbury on the lovely design of this wonderful novel. You can’t see here, but there is a cut-out of the watch dial, and all around are cogs, art nouveau flourishes, firework rockets and little spherical fizzing bombs, watched over by an octopus. Open the cover, and you see the gold watch dangling over an old drawing of Whitehall and the seat of Government in London – it really does set the scene. Thankfully, the story inside the covers matches the super design on the outside.

It is 1883, and Nathaniel Steepleton, known as Thaniel, is a telegraphist at the Home Office. It’s a boring job, he had wanted to be a pianist, but needed to provide for his widowed sister Annabel and her children. One day he returns home from work to his room to find that he is the victim of a reverse burglary – someone has done his washing up, lit his stove and an intricate gold pocket watch had been left in a box on his pillow.

The catch would not open when he pressed it. He held it to his ear, but the clockwork was silent and the spindle refused to wind. Somewhere in its workings, though, a few cogs must have been alive, because despite the dank cold, the case was warm.

London is under threat from the Fenians. After work one day Thaniel is in a nearby pub with a friend, when the watch sounds. Thaniel runs out and thus avoids being caught in a bomb blast that destroys Scotland Yard and kills many. Saved by the watch, Thaniel sets out to find its maker.

Meanwhile in Oxford, Grace Carrow is studying physics and researching the luminous ether, often dressing as a man to get into the library much to her Japanese friend Matsumoto’s amusement. She is desperate to get somewhere with her research before her mother forces her to marry.

Grace felt her eyebrow twitch and went on down the spiral steps. She had never understood why anyone listened to the rule about unaccompanied women and libraries. Everybody, professors and students and Proctors the same, knew that if the sign said ‘do not walk on the grass,’ one hopped. Anybody who didn’t had failed to understand what Oxford was.

Grace’s brother had given her a beautiful pocket watch. The maker’s mark said Mori – she assumed it was Italian.

The watchmaker, however is Japanese. Keito Mori is descended from a line of Samurai; he gave up a career in politics to come to London and indulge his passion for clockwork. Thaniel tracks him down to Filigree Street, a row of medieval houses where he has his workshop:

There was a sign by the door.

Room to let. Ask within.

He was about to call out again when, behind the desk, another door opened. A small man with blond hair came through it, backwards because he was carrying two cups of tea. When he turned around, he nodded good evening. He had slanted eyes. Oriental. Thaniel floundered.

‘Oh, er – do you speak English?’

‘Of course I do, I live in England,’ said the man. He held out one of the cups. His hands were thin, his skin the colour that Thaniel would have turned after a week in the sun. ‘Tea? It’s horrible outside.’

Thaniel explains how the watch saved him from the explosion, and that Scotland Yard will wonder how he knew to get out. But the two men get on well, and Keita (rhymes with later) suggests that Thaniel takes his room. Thaniel takes some persuading but exhausted agrees to stay the night for a start, and is introduced to Katsu, the clockwork octopus who seems to have a mind of his own and a propensity for stealing socks.

Pulley takes the first sixty pages or so to introduce us to her three main characters. All three engage us from the off: Thaniel who yearns for fulfilment, feisty bluestocking Grace who wants break down barriers, and the enigma of Mori who oftens seems to know what is going to happen before it does. The trio will come together ere long, but as the saying goes, two’s company, three’s a crowd.

There is an obvious elephant in the room which looms over everything – did Keito Mori make the clockwork devices that set off the Fenian bombs? Some believe he did, and Thaniel will find his loyalties stretched to breaking point as events begin to overtake him.

This is such a multi-layered novel full of exquisite detail, from Mori’s clockwork toys to the Japanese Village in Knightsbridge – the exhibition of Japanese culture which ran from 1885-7, where W.S. Gilbert went to hone The Mikado. We’ll hear more about Mori’s life in Japan, Grace’s experiments, and developments in Thaniel’s career.

In making Katsu an octopus, the author introduces a favoured motif of steampunk novels; Mori’s expertise with technology combined with Grace’s science does give a nod towards Victorian science fiction. But there’s also a subtle fantasy, or rather fantastic, element to the story that is reminiscent of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – not magic per se, just something in the ether that feels natural and unnatural simultaneously.

Despite the vestiges of steampunk fantasy, at its heart The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is a thriller, a remarkably effective one that draws you into its world from the beginning. It’s hard to believe that this novel is a debut. It is so polished that you will genuinely believe that the clockwork octopus is alive too.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Natasha Pulley, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (Bloomsbury: London, 2015) 9781408854280.  336pp., hardback.

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