The Dollmaker by Nina Allan

Posted On 25 March 2019

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DOLLMAKER_HB_DEMY.inddThe Dollmaker is s book that I have struggled to write a review for, on the one hand this is a complex story with beautiful writing that contains a series of fascinating smaller stories within, on the other hand it didn’t really work out well for me.  I confess I have a strange fascination for books and films with dolls – probably because they scare me a little – and we all like a good scaring every now and again – well I do anyway. I think that this probably gave me unreasonable expectations of what this story would eventually become and that is totally my own fault – check out the synopsis below which is a very apt description and in no way whatsoever misleading.  Basically, I led myself down the garden path with this one and so, to be absolutely clear, this is definitely a case of ‘it’s me not you’.  If this sounds like your cup of tea then please don’t be put off by the fact that this wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be.

Stitch by perfect stitch, Andrew Garvie makes exquisite dolls in the finest antique style. Like him, they are diminutive but graceful, unique, and with surprising depths. Perhaps that’s why he answers the enigmatic personal ad in his collector’s magazine.

Letter by letter, Bramber Winters reveals more of her strange, sheltered life in an institution on Bodmin Moor, and the terrible events that put her there as a child. Andrew knows what it is to be trapped, and as they knit closer together, he weaves a curious plan to rescue her.

On his journey through the old towns of England, he reads the fairy tales of Ewa Chaplin–potent, eldritch stories which, like her lifelike dolls, pluck at the edges of reality and thread their way into his mind. When Andrew and Bramber meet at last, they will have a choice–to break free and, unlike their dolls, come to life.

A love story of two very real, unusual people, The Dollmaker is also a novel rich with wonders: Andrew’s quest and Bramber’s letters unspool around the dark fables that give our familiar world an uncanny edge. It is this touch of magic that, like the blink of a doll’s eyes, tricks our own.

This is a story of two people (Andrew and Bamber), both struggling a little, both lonely, who find each other through a personal ad in a magazine and become close following the exchange of many letters.  Both are collectors of dolls and this shared interest creates a bond between the two.  This is a story of self discovery for both.

Firstly, the things I really enjoyed about this book.

The writing is gorgeous.  It’s evocative, it’s clever, it’s impressive.  I loved that parts of the story were told through letters, I love this way of telling a tale.

The setting.  Cornwall, I love Cornwall and have spent a lot of time there and so the settings were so interesting for me to read about.

The short stories within the main body.  These were great – and very unexpected for me as I don’t make a secret of the fact that short stories are not really my thing so the fact that I couldn’t wait for the next one was something of a revelation.  The short stories themselves are a collection of dark fairy tales written by a famous dollmaker, each of them seems to resonate personally and in fact share strange parallels with Andrew as he makes his way across Cornwall on his mission to rescue Bamber.  I loved these stories and could easily have read more.

So, why didn’t this quite work out for me.  I haven’t got any real criticisms as such.  I think this is a strange combination of unrealistic expectations coupled with a story arc that ambled just a little too much for my own liking.  I think the latter third of the book picked up the pace but reaching that point felt like it took quite a while and by that point my interest had waned.

I certainly don’t want to put anybody else off.  This is a beautiful piece of work that unfortunately, and maybe it’s a mood thing, didn’t quite work out for me.

I received a copy through Netgalley, courtesy of the publisher, for which my thanks.  The above is my own opinion.


16 Responses to “The Dollmaker by Nina Allan”

  1. Book Club Mom

    You’ve written a very fair review of a book that you think others would enjoy, even if it wasn’t for you. I have a lot of trouble writing reviews of books I didn’t like much, because I wonder if it’s because it’s just not my thing, or if it’s something else. But in the end, I think book blogs should reflect our own tastes and when our readers get to know us, they will know how much their tastes match ours. Happy Monday!

  2. Tammy

    It does sound good but it definitely seems more literary from the description, but it also hints at mystery, so I can see why you might have had other expectations.

    • @lynnsbooks

      I think the expectations were totally my own fault tbh. And the writing is lovely – more a pacing issue for me.
      Lynn 😀

  3. Captain's Quarters

    While I have only read one book by Nina Allan, the race, I think yer review sums up her writing style well from what I have seen of it. She writes beautifully but does meander and it can be hard to connect with the story and characters. So while the race didn’t end up working for me completely, I am still interested in more of her work. I think this review is lovely and makes me want to read this one to see if it works better for me. We shall see. Arrrr!
    x The Captain

    • @lynnsbooks

      I think you’ve hit the nail on the head also with your comment about not connecting with the characters – that’s how I felt about this one although I don’t think I mentioned it in the review.
      Lynn 😀

  4. sjhigbee

    Yep. I also recognise my own experience with The Race in your comments – and I’m not as forgiving as you. I kept comparing her rambling approach to her fractured narrative with the mastery of David Mitchell and by the end, I felt quite cheated. Lovely writing and strong characterisation isn’t sufficient if, by the end, I feel I’ve ended up in a cul-de-sac. I shan’t be bothering with anymore of her writing.

    • @lynnsbooks

      Well, there you go then, it wasn’t just me not really enjoying the meandering style. Her writing is lovely but I just wanted it to stop going round the houses a little bit.
      Lynn 😀

  5. Mogsy @ BiblioSanctum

    I still have to read Nina Allen, though I have two of her books on my nightstand waiting for me. I’ve heard that her work tends to be on the abstract weird side though, much like how you described. It does make me a little hesitant, but I’m encouraged by your praise of her gorgeous writing!

    • @lynnsbooks

      Her writing is really good – but a bit meandering I thought. Certain aspects of this were great – I loved the short stories which was really unusual for me. I’d try something else by her but maybe make sure it’s the type of book I would like before jumping in – I think I just liked the idea of this one without really reading it properly – dolls!
      Lynn 😀

  6. waytoofantasy

    It really seems like pacing was a bit of an issue on this one. Sorry this one was a disappointment for you!

    • @lynnsbooks

      Well, it didn’t work for me – but I think that was a combination of my own foolish notions going into the read and a pacing issue more than anything else. The writing is lovely and I have no doubt that this book will receive plenty of attention it just wasn’t really for me which is a shame.
      Lynn 😀

  7. Maryam (@thecurioussffreader)

    I really liked the Dollmaker, I’m a huge fan of Nina Allan’s short works and I was curious to finally read one of her novels. It’s very fragmented and slow but it worked well for me.

    • @lynnsbooks

      It took me a long time to get into the story and I think my own unfounded expectations really didn’t help. I loved the short fairy tales though which was really a revelation because I don’t usually enjoy short stories but I looked forward to each and every one.
      I hadn’t read this author before and she really does write beautifully so it’s a shame this story didn’t quite work out for me.
      Lynn 😀

  8. bkfrgr

    Funny, a copy of this arrived at work this week and I thought it looked like something you might read from what I’ve read of your posts. I was intrigued by the blurb, but not enough to bring it home.
    We are currently preparing to do a display of books told via letters however, so I may have to use it for that. So thanks! 😀

    • @lynnsbooks

      No problem. It didn’t really work as well as I’d hoped but it was well written and I loved the format.
      Lynn 😀

  9. sophiejobookshelf

    I completely agree that the short stories were so striking and so original. I’d love a short story collection of those – although suppose then you’d lose the eerie moments where things from the stories crop up in Andrew and Bramber’s ‘real life’…

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