Nina Allan’s third novel, The Dollmaker, is an exploration of human nature, love and connections. But it is also so much more than that. Nina Allan’s novel delves deep into what it is to be an outsider and how people overcome past tragedies and traumas and she does that through the main characters of the story Andrew and Bramber and their passion for dolls.
The novel begins with the main protagonist Andrew. Andrew has always been an outsider due to his height and love for dolls but through a series of hind sights dispersed through the book the reader sees how Andrew manages to find a niche for himself in life. His unusual interest in dolls has transformed into a lucrative career securing him a corner in the world that is just his and professional respect from those around him. The reader finds out about Andrew’s place in life and although he has relationships and friends, it is clear that he is a lonely and somewhat depressed man. The main part of The Dollmaker follows Andrew on his journey to meet and rescue his pen-pal Bramber, another doll enthusiast.
The narrative switches between Andrew’s journey across Devon, the flashbacks revealing more of his past and Bramber’s story told in a series of letters addressed to Andrew. Letter by letter the reader learns more about Bramber, her life and the reason why she has been in an sanitarium/asylum for the past twenty years. Both narratives run parallel to a series of short stories integrated into the main plotline. In one of Bramber’s letters Andrew learns about her love for Ewa Chaplin and her magical, surrealistic stories. Not surprisingly Andrew acquires a copy of Chaplin’s fiction and takes it along for his journey.
The stories of Ewa Chaplin that Andrew reads whilst traveling are supposed to be mirroring the life and experiences of the two main protagonists. The majority of the stories stand well on their own and are pieces of great prose writing. They revolve around dwarves and magic, love and passion in an attempt to add a further layer to the story of Andrew and Bramber. However, at times the stories miss their mark and this adopted mirror structure feels enforced. The fact that Andrew has to highlight the ways Ewa Chaplin’s fiction follows his present journey does not read with natural ease. The intention for a complex narrative is great and it can work miracles for a novel but it is somewhat lacking in The Dollmaker making it harder for the reader to get immersed in the world of Andrew, Bramber and Chaplin.
The same can be said about the two main characters. Although their stories are interesting they don’t always come to life in their separate narative segments. Andrew’s journey, which in most literary fiction is a symbol of change and self-discovery, is very mundane. Usually, there is nothing wrong with the mundane especially when it meets the magical, the Chaplin’s stories, but his stay in various towns is very anticlimactic. He does undergo a certain metamorphosis of spirit but it feels more like madness that in the end results in him being the same person living the same life as he did in the very beginning of the novel. It is a similar situation with Bramber. Although her letters are interesting she doesn’t always come to life in some scenes. The reader only touches the surface of her character making it hard for the reader to get fully invested with her life as a person rather than a fictional character.
However, with all of this said, Nina Allan has created a truly great piece of prose writing that touches upon some very important topics. The moment Andrew and Bramber meet is truly where the mundane meets the magical. Some may say that the ending of the novel is lacking but it reads in a very realistic way. On the pages, there are two lonely people haunted by their past traumas finally meeting a kin spirit that understands them and loves them and that is what the book is all about in its core. It is a search for human connection and despite its flaws The Dollmaker certainly packs a punch with its main message and themes. The elegant style of writing really evokes the feelings of loneliness, madness and love and this makes The Dollmaker a real manifestation of the human spirit.
Photo courtesy of Diana Patient
The Dollmaker is available now, published by riverrun.