Book Review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley (Bloomsbury 2015)

This beautiful looking book is the first novel of Natasha Pulley.  

Nathaniel Steepleton is a telegraphy operator for the Home Office in an alternative Victorian London.  It’s not quite a steampunk version of London, more of a clockwork Capital.  Nathaniel is known as Thaniel (apparently his Dad was Nat) and has synesthesia; he sees sounds as colours and vice-versa.

Whilst working the night-shift Thaniel (surely he could be Nat as well, or Neil maybe?) receives a message from Scotland Yard that a Fenian group known as Clan na Gael had threatened to bomb all public buildings in 6 months time.  I’m no expert on organising a terror campaign but you would think that a half-year’s advanced warning would give the authorities the opportunity to make preparations or even prevent the attack.

On returning to his lonely bachelor apartment, Thaniel, finds that his room has been broken into.  Nothing has been taken but a rather sophisticated pocket-watch has been left. 

We are then introduced to Grace Carrow, a student at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.  Grace is a scientist who also owns sophisticated watch.  She suffers from the overarching patriarchal and sexist attitudes prevalent at that point in history but is not a fan of women’s suffrage.  The ladies attending a Suffrage meeting are shown as rather muddle-headed sheep and Grace notes that if women were to be given the vote she would move to Germany.  Through the book we see Grace kicking out against social norms and expectations.  She wants to study, she wants to conduct experiments but it is a struggle.  Her father makes the quite depressing comment that 

One of the great evils of our time for men and women is to be educated beyond one’s purpose in life. 

Both Thaniel’s (it’s making my teeth itch typing that now) and Grace’s watches were built by master Japanese watchmaker Keita Mori.  The watch left in Thaniel’s room saves his life and his attempts to find answers leads him to the workshop of Mori.  

As the story is set in England and features a Japanese man there is, perhaps inevitably, lots of tea.  Thaniel and Mori’s friendship is polite, quiet, deep felt and quite touching.  One of the best ideas in the book is ‘Katsu’ a clockwork Octopus made by Mori that includes random gears that allows Katsu to appear to have a mind of its own.  

Mori has an ability that is unique, inexplicable and, when used, likely to cause fear and suspicion in those around him.  It is this ability that brings Thaniel (make it stop!) into his life.  

The story brings Grace and Nathaniel together in a mutually convenient partnership in which both aim to find a personal truth.  The themes of the book are free-will, chaos theory and predetermination in a London where sexual-equality and gay rights are not in existence.

Overall there were some quite nice parts to the book.  Mori and Katsu were by far the most interesting characters.  I felt ambivalent about the storyline, it had no strong impact and the ending was confusing and not particularly satisfying.  Nice cover though.