At first glance, this novel appeared to be treading familiar ground: the gaslit streets of a fogbound London, hanson cabs, Fenian plots. One expects to be run down by Sherlock Holmes at any moment whenever Thaniel Steepleton ventures outside. Yet, from the outset, Pulley’s novel bursts with a lively prose and wry narrative voice which is a real pleasure to read in every way.
Let’s look at the opening lines
The Home Office telegraphy department always smelled of tea. The source was one packet of Lipton’s at the back of Nathaniel Steepleton’s desk drawer. Before the widespread use of the electric telegraph, the office had been a broom cupboard. Thaniel had heard more than once that its failure to expand was a sign of the Home Secretary’s continuing mistrust of naval inventions, but even if that wasn’t the case, the departmental budget had never stretched to the replacement of the original carpet, which liked to keep the ghosts of old smells. Besides Thaniel’s modern tea, there was cleaning salt and hessian, and sometimes varnish, though nobody had varnished anything there for years.
Sensory and luxurious without being self indulgent, this is gorgeous writing!
And Steepleton, who is our main point of view character is a pleasure to spend time with: Northern, poor and eking out an existence as a Home Office telegrapher, quiet and fastidious, he is also synaesthetic, seeing sound as colour and the descriptions of synaesthesia as he made his way down the stairs is equally wry.
As he went down, it clanged in a bright yellow D sharp. He couldn’t say why D sharp was yellow. Other notes had their own colours. It had been useful when he still played the piano because whenever he went wrong, the sound turned brown. This sound-seeing was something he had always kept to himself. Yellow stairs made him sound mad and, contrary to the opinions of the Illustrated News, it was frowned upon for Her Majesty’s Government to employ the demonstrably insane.
The un-demonstrably insane, presumably, are still welcome in Her Majesty’s Government – in 1883 as they are in 2020 perhaps!
Steepleton’s life is circumscribed by small routines and rituals and the memories of his gamekeeper father and impecunious widowed sister to whom he sends half his salary. A small, unremarkable life; a simple cog in the machinery of government. Until he returns home one evening to find a gold pocket watch mysteriously left in his dingy rooms, a pocket watch which he cannot open or wind but which “Somewhere in its workings, though, a few cogs must have been alive, because despite the dank cold, the case was warm.” A watch which six months later sounds an alarm which saves him from a Fenian bomb. Was that coincidence? Conspiracy? Or something more strange than either of those mundane explanations.
As it turns out – fortunately – it is something more strange and Steepleton traces the watch to its maker, Keita Mori, a Japanese gentleman – a Samurai and a Duke in fact – living in Filigree Street with a convenient room available to let. A man who greets Thaniel with two freshly brewed cups of tea, brewed before Thaniel steps into his shop.
It turns out that Mori is somehow able to remember the future – all possible futures – until they cease to be possible when they disappear from his memory: he was able to play from memory music by Griszt, even before it had been printed, for as long as there was the possibility that Thaniel might buy him the sheet music; he was unable to play it once Thaniel’s opportunity for buying it was lost. It is a remarkable and subtle and unnerving superpower that allows him to quietly nudge events over years so that, for example, the weight of a cat can bring a wall down on an enemy – or perhaps a cousin – or a pear tree planted in the right place can be ready to fall upon an assassin years into the future.
Interspersed with Thaniel and Mori’s story is that of Matsumoto and Grace Carrow – seeking to use science to build an interferometer to discover the ether and rationalise the supernatural. The two couples dance around each other coming closer and closer until they are intertwined. It is a remarkable piece of structuring in a novel – like watching a dance flowing, or the workings of a clock – the relationships between them all echoing rebounding twisting. Neither Mori nor Matsumoto seem able to declare their feelings; neither Thaniel nor Grace are initially able to recognise the potential for a relationship outside the traditional gender, sexuality and racial bounds of the nineteenth century.
How are we meant to respond to Mori? Like Thaniel with sympathy and concern, afraid of the weight of the consequences and responsibility on the head of a quiet, gentle man? Or perhaps like Grace, horrified at the potential he holds to manipulate and coordinate the people around him, like cogs in his clockwork workshop? Or, perhaps, both simultaneously.
And what transpires is in part a deeply touching love story, in part a powerful thriller, and also a quietly meditative exploration of fate and destiny. It is, in its entirety, however, wholly character driven so that even minor characters have a weight and heft to them – especially the somewhat scene stealing clockwork octopus Katsu who has a penchant for stealing Thaniel’s socks.
The clockwork octopus came out. It extended a tentacle with a clicking of metal joints. Around it was looped the chain of his watch. He hesitated, but took it. The chain skittered over the metal tentacle with a high, thin pitch like incoming sea. It was quite a coincidence for a mechanical sea creature and he was speculating whether it could possibly have been done on purpose when Katsu stole his other sock and flopped on to the floor with an unbiological bang, whereupon it octopused out of the open door and slid down the banister.
And the wonderful thing is that Pulley has recently released the sequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street and I am already half way through The Lost Future of Pepperharrow which is equally wonderful!
Consider this book if you liked
- The Bedlam Stacks by the same author – why have I not reviewed this one yet?
- The Golem and the Djinni, Helene Wecker
- The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
World Building: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Publisher: Bloomsbury Circus
Date: 2nd July 2015