Published by Bloomsbury USA on July 14th 2015
1883. Thaniel Steepleton returns home to his tiny London apartment to find a gold pocket watch on his pillow. Six months later, the mysterious timepiece saves his life, drawing him away from a blast that destroys Scotland Yard. At last, he goes in search of its maker, Keita Mori, a kind, lonely immigrant from Japan. Although Mori seems harmless, a chain of unexplainable events soon suggests he must be hiding something. When Grace Carrow, an Oxford physicist, unwittingly interferes, Thaniel is torn between opposing loyalties.
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is a sweeping, atmospheric narrative that takes the reader on an unexpected journey through Victorian London, Japan as its civil war crumbles long-standing traditions, and beyond. Blending historical events with dazzling flights of fancy, it opens doors to a strange and magical past.
I think I’ve found my favourite book of 2015. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street ticks all of my boxes: Victorian setting, a splash of Japan, a weaving of magic and loveable characters.
I was first drawn to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by the cover. It is utterly beautiful. If you want to buy a book for its physical beauty then buy this one. Bloomsbury did a wonderful job producing the hardcover. I ended up picking up both the hardcover, with its beautiful map and windowed cover, and the audiobook. The audiobook played a big role in my love of the book. I’m listening to it for the second time currently because I cannot get enough of it. The narrator, Thomas Judd, does a really great job here. It was great being able to listen to Thaniel and Mori’s accents in particular. Their accents are important in terms of who they are and I’m really glad that I could hear that aspect of them through the audiobook. Mori’s accent in particular is a plot point in itself and the changes in it are more striking in the audiobook, I think, so I do recommend giving the audiobook of this novel a go.
Set in 1883 the book opens on a terrorist threat to bomb British government buildings in London. A telegraphist for the Home Office becomes deeply entangled in these events when a pocket watch with curious clockwork is left in his room one day.
The eponymous watchmaker of this book is Keito Mori. Mori has a special gift and as such has a strong hand in shaping the course of the narrative. Mori can and is viewed in two very different ways by other characters. One view is that he is dangerous and using his gift to toy with life in the same way that he tinkers with clockwork. The other is that he is a lonely man who is using his powers to help others where possible, but also to gain the companionship he deeply desires. The former others Mori and the latter humanises.
Caught up in the web of Mori’s gift is Thaniel Steepleton, a telegraphist who works for the government. Thaniel was the character I fell in love with the most. Part of Thaniel’s charm is how he perceives the world. I loved how Thaniel’s synaesthesia was worked into the novel. It was a subtle but beautiful part of Thaniel’s view of the world. I also loved his relationship with music (this comic would really speak to him, I think). In a way the book depends on you connecting more with Thaniel than the other protagonist, Grace, because that determines your stance on Mori. Grace sees danger, Thaniel sees a lonely man. If the sympathy was reversed then the novel would be a different beast.
Grace is a very interesting and clever woman. She at once challenges and reinforces the status quo on women’s rights. As a student at Oxford she puts her scientific mind to thorough use. Her projects are very important to her. Grace longs to be allowed to continue her experiments and support herself through an academic career. She doesn’t want to be dependent on men. At the same time she often views other women condescendingly. I think she has spent such a long time feeling alienated from the world of women as created by society that she perpetuates this exclusion in her own mind. She sees herself as different and apart from other women even when they are campaigning for women’s rights. So she ends up wishing that they don’t get the vote because she thinks them silly, even though this would mean her own rights would remain restricted. Grace does end up at odds with Mori but I do not think I would call her a bad person because I can see the argument against Mori as a person and I understand her care for Thaniel, but because of Thaniel I cannot agree with it.
Thaniel sees a side of Mori that nobody else really does. Thaniel and Mori’s relationship was wonderful. I loved how Mori worked to open Thaniel up, and save him from becoming small. I loved how they interacted with each other and how they were kind of fated to find each other.
There are meaty themes at work in this novel beneath the beautiful character work. One thing this book investigates is the consequences of marginalisation. Old Japanese culture and history is under threat. Nationalism among the Irish is on the rise, bringing other marginalised nationals along with them. Women are campaigning for the vote. The late Victorian setting of the novel is perfect for crafting that edge of a new era, fin de siècle mood. Changes are happening at a fantastic rate in this era. Britain is industrialising. The future seems to be overwriting the past. The setting and themes charge the book with a certain kinetic energy that helps spark it to life.
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street thoroughly engaged my imagination and I cannot stop thinking about it. Needless to say, this book really worked for me. I love Thaniel and Mori. The clockmaker and the telegraphist will bustle about in my mind for a long time to come.