Book Review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

I should start of by saying that I went into reading this book with very high expectations. I had become aware of this book many months ago, before all the promotional campaigning kicked off, and could not wait to start reading it once I had my hands on a copy. Quasi-fantasy, fantasy stories set in the real or historical world, novels seem to be the order of the day currently and the synopsis of this one in particular seemed to fall into the genre.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is the debut novel of Natasha Pulley, an English Literature graduate from Oxford University who has spent a number of months living in Tokyo, and these influences clearly have a major impact on the story as a whole. The female lead is a student at Oxford herself and her best friend is the son of a Japanese aristocrat. In addition to this the eponymous watchmaker is Japanese and the main protagonist, Thaniel, of the story is seconded from the telegraphy department of the Home Office to the Japanese desk of the Foreign Office for which the reasoning can only be described as flimsy at best.

In addition to the author's experiences influencing the novel you cannot help but to notice the impact of her Oxford education on the quality of her writing as well. There is a magical element to her writing that helps to keep the pages turning early on. One particular theme that she describes beautifully throughout the novel is how Thaniel can see sounds as colour, and her prose is so wonderful that at times I almost could see the sounds in the book as colours as well. I can only hope that one day I will be able to write with this degree of beauty.

Of course the secret to any good story is the characters and it only makes sense to take a look at our protagonist first. Thaniel is a classically trained pianist who gives up dreams of playing in an orchestra to provide for his widowed sister and her sons up in Edinburgh. It is important to keep this in mind as this is described on a number of occasions as one of, if not the, key motivations for this character. To provide for them he takes up a job working for the Home Office and lives in a small flat in Pimlico. His life seems to be somewhat monotonous as he travels too and from work each day and you are happy to see an intricate pocket watch arrive in his life to drive the story forwards after a beautifully described, if slow, start.

Next we are introduced to Grace, studying physics at Oxford, and where you would describe Thaniel as monotonous you can only describe Grace as boisterous. Strong female leads are becoming increasingly popular in fiction, whether written or onscreen, and Grace ticks all of the required boxes. In the late nineteenth century Britain we are introduced to women must be chaperoned everywhere and they are expected to settle down and marry at the first opportunity. In complete contrast to this Grace sneaks off to the university library disguised as a man, works on experiments which are the antipathy of the womanly endeavours of society and marriage is the furthest thing from her mind. For me Grace should have been one of the stars of this story, she sees the machinations of other characters clearly and offers a strong voice against them. Unfortunately, the author always appeared to have one solitary goal in mind for her endgame and this results in the majority of Grace's storyline being rendered redundant. In fact you could go as far as to say that you could remove all reference to Grace in the story and the end result would still be the same, which is a travesty.

I also want to take a look at is the watchmaker, Keita Mori. A kind, or at least the author wishes to try and portray him this way, and quiet man with dyed hair and a mechanical octopus but there always appears to be more to him than meets the eye. Through Mr Mori we are able to take a look at nineteenth century Japan through his experiences, and I expect those of our author, and see what leads him to come to London. Another descendant of Japanese aristocracy, Mori betrays his family and ends up working for the Japanese government. There is an argument that by betraying them he was saving them from greater humiliation but there seems to be a callousness to the character who can coldly let others die if it suits his needs. He has some sort of magical or psychic powers and a good chunk of the book is spent trying to identify what these are.

I could not warm to Mr Mori and the most human aspect of his character was his mechanical octopus Katsu. If we have learned anything from Star Wars and the like it is that little robots have a way of winning over our hearts, and Katsu is no different. While Katsu is described as not having a mind of his own his "random gears" give him the appearance of being a living creature and this is reinforced by his need to steal socks. He may only play a small part in the story but he is easily one of the stars.

And so we move onto the story itself, it starts in London and you wouldn't be wrong to think that not much has changed in 130 odd years. Thaniel spends the early part of the book living the humdrum life of all of us. Travel to work, sit at a desk, go home. Rinse and repeat. The only injection of any interest is the threat of Clan na Gael bombing the Home Office. I fear that there may be some level of historical inaccuracy here as I believe that Clan na Gael were based in the United States and financing The Fenians who were carrying out bombings in London during this period and the Home Office were not mentioned as a target.

Regardless of the historical accuracy the story continues. Thaniel receives a pocket watch from an unknown benefactor. With the threat of being blown up he decides to try and sell the watch so that his sister will have more money but no one will take it. At this point the story seemed to be dragging to some degree and so it is with great relief that the day of the bombing finally arrives. As the day ticks on everyone is apprehensive but the deadline passes and they all go out to the pub, a very British thing to do, by Scotland Yard to celebrate their new lease on life. At this point the pocket watch has some sort of internal alarm that goes off and he leaves the pub so as not to upset the other patrons. As soon as the alarm stops the bomb explodes in Scotland Yard across the street and we discover that this alarm has saved Thaniel's life.

In a state of shock Thaniel decides to make his way to the watchmaker to see if he can track down who bought the watch and saved his life. Immediately we are aware that something is off with the watchmaker as he appears to be waiting for Thaniel to turn up and offers him a place to stay. The next day Thaniel returns to work and goes to see his friend, the police officer investigating the bombing. Despite the suspicious alarm and the fact that he had disappeared for a prolonged period after the bombing Thaniel is cleared as a suspect before he has returned. A somewhat strenuous leap of faith from the police. To make matters even less plausible the police decide that he is the perfect person to spy on the watchmaker who must have something to do with the bombing because of the alarm in the watch. Rather than just arrest the man, Thaniel is now undercover with the Japanese version of Professor X.

Running parallel to this is Grace's story. At Oxford University she is investigating something called ether, through which light moves. I was overly hopeful that this would end up being something similar to dust from the His Dark Materials trilogy, alas I was left disappointed. Her rebellious nature has left her at odds with her parents who would much prefer that she marries and settles into her natural role in society. In an effort to appease them we find out that she has struck a deal with them to marry after university in the hope that she will prove her hypothesis and be offered a teaching role that would leave her free of the burden of their expectations.

We are introduced to Matsumoto, a charming young Japanese man and her only real friend. They work together to get through university life achieving their own separate goals, he provides Grace with a chaperone where required and she is his ticket into the local suffragette movement, where the "put-upon husbands" hold poker games in the anteroom. The two of them work well together although it is made clear that there is nothing more than friendship there, Matsumoto appearing almost brotherly at times. On the walk back from one of the women's suffrage meetings Grace shows Matsumoto her own pocket watch that we discover is also made by Mr Mori and he eyes it suspiciously, alluding to something from back in Japan although Grace reassures him that the watchmaker must be Italian with a name like Mori.

Back in London some times has passed and Thaniel is seconded to the Foreign Office, as predicted by Mori, to work on the Japanese desk. The less said about the reasoning the better and further to this he is invited to the Foreign Office ball. We learn more about the burgeoning friendship between Mori and Thaniel, but while Thaniel appears to be warming to him Mori only gives him just enough friendship to keep leading him on. Katsu adds some levity to the situation by sneaking into Thaniel's furniture and stealing his clothing but all in all the whole environment feels forced.

The night of the Foreign Office ball arrives and Grace has returned from Oxford where her experiment failed. Now she is set to attend the ball as requested by her parents in the hope that she will marry none other than Thaniel's boss. At the ball Grace runs into Matsumoto who is once again gambling, after a quick conversation Matsumoto appears consumed by the gambling and Grace, sticking out like a sore thumb, backs away from the table and conveniently straight into Thaniel. The two oddballs hit it off and I can't help but think that initially the author may have planned for the story to go in a different direction.

So as not to ruin the plot for anyone who wishes to read this book in future I will be suitably vague with the rest of the story from this point onwards.

The relationship between Grace and Thaniel flourishes and they team up to test Mori's abilities. While Mori may be suitably friendly with Thaniel he can only be described as distant with Grace and you can't help but feel that he is trying to drive a wedge in there. The two hatch a plan for a wedding allowing Grace to continue her experiments and Thaniel to provide for his sister and nephews.

We learn more about Mori and his manipulative ways back in Japan and how he came to be in London, along with the trail of destruction he left in his wake. Alongside this he twists Thaniel's feelings when the police eventually do decide to act on their hunches from almost half a book ago. Thaniel intervenes but once again the police do nothing about it apart from make a vague threat of charging him as an accessory when they prove their theory about Mori. All I can say is that I am glad the police take these things more seriously today than in Ms Pulley's nineteenth century London.

The Japanese community in London is expanded upon and we meet a variety of characters, some who wish to assimilate into the British population and some who are very nationalistic, namely a young boy named Yuki. Somehow Clan na Gael have transposed themselves from the United States into London, see early comment on historical accuracy, and they are inviting in people from outside the Irish fraternity. You even have the stereotypical English upper class creating their racist opera based on Japan, that would appear to be fully endorsed by the Japanese population of London. It is at this point that Thaniel is given the opportunity to return to the life he chose to give up many years ago and sits down at the piano again.

And that is where I felt everything well and truly fell apart in the novel. One of the key rules of fiction is that it must make sense. In real life strange things can happen that come out of nowhere but a story is like a puzzle and all of the pieces must fit together so that it works. I get the feeling that by the end of her story Ms Pulley decided that she did not want to follow this convention and instead tried something else, unfortunately for me it just didn't work.

The wedding arrives but Mori doesn't, once again playing his games. Rather than be annoyed about this Thaniel goes after him and illogical leap after illogical leap follows. There is an assassination attempt, another bombing and a wild goose chase through London that seems to bend time to it's own will. As if she remembered that there was the smoking gun of the original bombing still to answer Ms Pulley hastily throws together a couple of lines of dialogue with Mori providing the name of the bombmaker and the police accepting it no questions asked. The bombmaker then breaks in police interrogation when they ask the terrifying question "did you make the bomb?"

I would say that the last 30 pages have more action in them than the first 300 odd put together and yet you are left feeling completely unfulfilled. In particular, going back to an earlier point, Thaniel's main motivation is caring for his sister and nephews. The author goes to great length to keep reinforcing this point a number of times throughout the story, and then he just throws away all those cares to fit the ending that the author wants. More than anything else this is what bothered me, you spend hours investing in these characters and then they do something completely out of character to close out the book.

On top of this, all of Grace's character development is for nothing as her storyline has no impact on the ultimate outcome. I honestly believe that you could take out her entire involvement and still reach the same ending and this is because the ending we are provided with is completely at odds with the rest of the story the author tells us.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is one of the more disappointing novels that I have read this year, I did persevere with it all the way to it's unsatisfying conclusion but I do not expect to go back and read it again. What I will say is that Natasha Pulley does have a magical way with words and I do hope that she continues to use this talent. The way she writes is an art-form through which she creates the most vivid pictures, I just hope that the next canvas is a little more focused from end to end.


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