The Dollmaker

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 9 Apr 2019

Member Reviews

A literary, often unsettling road trip novel about dolls, dwarves and fairy tales. Andrew, a proportional dwarf who makes and collects dolls, enters into a correspondence with Bramber, a woman he hasn't met but who he comes to believe to be his soulmate. The unannounced journey he makes across the west country to meet her provides the narrative thrust of this novel. Interspersed with this are - obviously - Andrew's backstory, the letters Bramber continues to write while he is travelling, and a series of haunting, slightly spooky fairy tales that bear echoes of the narrator's own experience. To enjoy it, you have to concentrate hard, and suspend your disbelief even harder - but it's worth it. The writing is beautiful, the plotting clever, and the entire thing - despite my initial doubts - an emotionally fulfilling read.
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Thanks for the copy via Netgalley.

The blurb: 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 is why he answers the enigmatic personal as in his collectors 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.
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, trick our own...
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This book takes so long to get anywhere that I gave up on it in the end. Sorry, well written though.
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Wasn't able to read and review book before it was removed from my e-reader

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 fairytales 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 remain alone with their painful pasts or 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 . . .
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An atmospheric and questioning storyline with interesting characters. Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for providing an advanced reading copy.
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Unusual, surprising and beautiful. I really enjoyed reading the e-ARC and I will definitely buy a copy of the book.
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One of the rare books that I didn't finish.  In theory it had everything to transfix me but ultimately I didn't care enough about the characters to continue.
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Such an unusual book. The cover really is beautiful, which was the first thing that drew me in. The book itself was a really lovely surprise. 
I thoroughly enjoyed The Dollmaker, and would recommend it to others.
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I had no idea what to expect from this novel and as such it took me a while to get around to reading it. The book is one which deserves to be read obsessively, to the exclusion of all others. It requires the full attention and immersion of the reader, for which we are justly rewarded. I cannot even begin to imagine the process involved in writing a work which is so intricate and nuanced. Each character has a distinctive voice. The converging storylines are fascinating. Personally, I would love to own a separate copy of the Ewa Chaplin stories as well! I was a little disappointed by the ending as I felt that some of the threads of the story were left loose when I had expected everything to come together neatly. Overall, it was a good read.
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The Dollmaker for me, unfortunately remains unfinished. The premise of the book seems like it could develop into something interesting, but unfortunately the first two fifths or so didn’t participate grip me, and felt a bit of a slog.
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I liked the sound of The Dollhouse when I read the blurb but in reality, it was quite hard to get in to. In reality I didn’t manage to get more than about a chapter into it because I couldn’t concentrate. I think it would be quite a good read for some people, but I just didn’t get on with it.

Ever since Andrew was a young boy, he has liked dolls. As an adult he is a collector and maker of dolls.

One day he answers an add in one of his collector’s magazines and begins exchanging letters with a woman who has spent most of her life in an institution.
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Dolls have a very special place in popular culture. On the one hand they’re a symbol of childhood and innocence, on the other hand they’re a staple of the horror genre. Something about them unnerves many people and I find that contrast fascinating. Personally I was never that into dolls, partly because my parents never caved to my complaints that everybody else had them. I left them behind pretty quickly, yet I love the darkness that infuses them in horror movies. It’s the idea of corrupted innocence, I guess, that clings to them. In The Dollmaker Nina Allan puts dolls and those who collect them in the spotlight, while twisting readers expectations. Thanks to Quercus Books, riverrun and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 Dolls are not my favourite thing, and yet I've previously found myself fascinated by them in fiction. A story that springs to mind immediately is 'The Doll' by Daphne DuMaurier, in which a young man falls ardently in love with a woman who is enraptured in turn by a doll. The doll, in many ways, becomes a major character in the story, without being truly alive. Similarly in The Dollmaker, dolls are central to the lives of its main characters. They are lifeless representations of how we see ourselves. Or perhaps they hold a piece of us as well. Many of us have a childhood doll or stuffed animal hidden away somewhere, not needing it present in our bedrooms and yet not capable of getting rid of it. In The Dollmaker dolls are both a narrative device as well as the cog upon which the whole novel turns. They bring a Gothic atmosphere to the novel, unsettling the reader every so slightly and thereby opening them up to the questions Allan's novel asks. 
The Dollmaker revolves around Andrew Garvie, diminutive himself, crafts dolls with utter care, making them as lifelike as possible. And yet, he is unable to truly infuse them with life. Responding to a posting in a monthly doll collector's magazine, he begins to communicate with Bramber Winters, a woman living in a rather mysterious institute. He decides to surprise her with a visit, hoping that it will spark something more than just a friendship, and the novel follows his slow journey to her. In some  ways The Dollmaker is a coming-of-age novel for Andrew, forcing him to finally face his fears of rejection and his own traumas. It is also a contemplative novel, questioning what it means to be alive and how we see ourselves. How does what happened to us affect us now? Can we leave the safety we have found, even if that safety in and of itself poses a threat? Allan doesn't claim to have all the answers, and at times I found myself frustrated by a lack of clarity. Once I finished the novel I still felt like I didn't really know Bramber as an independent character. We see her solely through Andrew's lens, who has idealized her in the same way he has his dolls. 

Nina Allan has crafted a very intricate and complicated novel. On the one hand we have Andrew's travel narrative. On the other hand we have Bramber's letters, slowly unraveling the mystery of her life. And then, on a surprising third hand, we have the short stories of Ewa Chaplin, a dollmaker and short story writer that Bramber is obsessed with. Chaplin's stories are mysterious and fantastical, with odd links to Andrew and Bramber's lives. I have to admit that "Ewa Chaplin"'s stories were my favourite part of The Dollmaker. They're atmospheric, dark and full of stunning imagery. I was enraptured by them, which had the consequence that I found myself racing through the rest of the plot just to get to the next story. I wish the same tension and magic had been present in the novel's other story lines, but there was only a faint trace of it here and there. Overall I did enjoy The Dollmaker, even if not all parts of the novel captured me equally.

The Dollmaker is an atmospheric novel which questions how we see ourselves and what we are willing to do to free ourselves. Although not consistently successful, Allan creates some stunning imagery in her novel and crafts a stunning structure. I recommend this novel to those looking for a challenge and interested in the Gothic.
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The  Dollmaker follows the story of a man and woman who are both doll enthusiasts, and begin a friendship by letter. The man then decides to travel to visit the woman, and the story of that journey also unfolds in the book. On his journey he reads a book, and the short stories in that book are woven into the main storyline.

This book is certainly not what I expected it to be. The writing is very traditional, and quite straightforward but elegant. There is a clear difference between the writing of the main plot and the short stories, in which the writing is more embellished and even more old fashioned. I enjoyed reading both, and they very cleverly come together in subtle ways to create a complete picture and thought process within the story. You could not have one without the other, even though the short stories are also separate tales of their own. I found it a little strange to read at times, but it worked. The characters felt very real, and I got a strong sense of many worlds and times coming together as one.

I wouldn't know how to categorise this book - it isn't a drama as such, and it is neither contemporary or period, but rather a bit of both. It is intelligent and thoughtful, and possibly more suited to a female audience because of the romantic air, although I wouldn't say this is a romance novel either because it's just a little bit too strange - in a good way.
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This book was a slightly different choice for me and I chose it because the premise sounded like something I would enjoy. I’m so glad I did, as it was actually a very pleasurable and intriguing read. "The Dollmaker" was strange, complex, magical, multilayered and very unusual, although based around a simple love story. It had elements of creepiness and Goth to it which I think added to the tale in a positive way and the short stories contained within created depth and substance. Nina Allan's writing style was very clever and individual and I am keen to read more from her. Highly recommended.

I received a complimentary digital copy of this novel, at my own request, from Quercus Books/ Riverrun via NetGalley. This review is my own unbiased opinion.
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I received a free ARC of this book from Netgalley in return for a fair review.
It has taken me two months to finish this book, which is unheard of for me, but 70% of that was over the last two days! 
The Doll Maker tells of Andrew, a little person living in London who has several acquaintances but no real friends. His passion in life is dolls - buying them, making them, mending them, reading about them... - and it’s through this passion that he meets Bamber, a fellow doll fan. They communicate through letters until Andrew decides to take a leap and travel to Bodmin to meet her.
It took me a while to get into the book as the story tends to jump around, but I demolished the final
70%. I loved the interspersing of the folk tales which echoed Andrew and Bamber’s stories - in fact I think I would have given 5 stars if it had just been a book of those! 
The ending was a bit anticlimactic, so paired with a slow start means it’s a 4* from me, but I would recommend for the unusual short stories peppered throughout!
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When I final;y finished this novel, I wasnt quite sure what to think. I didn't dislike it as a story but I also didn't feel any particular degree of like for the tale either. It just kind of was.

I initially requested this novel from Netgalley based upon the beautiful cover art and the blurb which drew me in. I have never read a Nina Allan novel before but due to the description and cover, I thought I would give it a go.

The Dollmaker is split into 3 portions, that of Andrew G - a lover of dolls from a young age, insitutionalised Bramber, and tales of the eccentric Eva Chaplin, a Polish Jew dollmaker of the past. In The Dollmaker Andrew and Bramber exchange penmail while he makes his way to her in order to save her from her meagre existence. Threaded throughout are the tales of Ewa, bridging the gap in correspondence.

Going in I was extremely hopeful for an enthralling experience but alas, after around 25% I really started to lose interest. I think the main point that turned me off was Ewa's obsession with dwarves which I found strange and isolating for her character. 

Overall, as I said previously it was not a 'bad' novel nor was it fantastic. It simply just was.
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Andrew and Bramber start writing to each other because of their shared interest in dolls. As their friendship grows, Andrew decides to visit Bramber at the institution she calls home. Andrew and Bramber’s story is interspersed with tales written by another doll-lover, Ewa Chaplin, which Andrew reads on his journey. A beautiful, strange, multi-layered book you’ll want to keep reading long after the sun has gone down.
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Andrew Garvie, a small man, almost a midget, finds himself drawn to dolls from a very young age, lured by their beauty and their strangeness. Though concerned by his strange request, his parents indulge him, and buy him the antique doll he craves. His interest quickly becomes an irresistible obsession. He becomes an avid collector, and later a maker of dolls. A tiny man with a peculiar obsession, Andrew is only too aware that others will find his interest bizarre, and even frightening, and he hides his dolls from almost everyone.
The story really begins when Andrew is in his thirties, living a lonely, cloistered life, approaching middle-age, and ready for an adventure, even though he doesn’t know it. A message in a doll-collecting magazine catches his eye—a woman called Bramber Winters seeking information about Ewa Chaplin.
A Polish refugee who lived in London till her death, Chaplin was a writer and - more importantly to Andrew - a renowned dollmaker. Her extraordinary, unique dolls now reside in museums; on the rare occasions they come up for sale, their cost is well out of Andrew’s reach. Andrew doesn’t know much about Chaplin, but feels an instinctive affinity with Bramber. He is drawn to respond, and the two begin a correspondence that forms the core of Nina Allen’s story, as Bramber and Andrew tell their individual tales, coming together through their letters.
Bramber unfolds her story slowly. Andrew learns little about her, other than that she has lived for many years in an institution in Cornwall. Andrew’s response to this mutual outcast is visceral. Inexplicably drawn, he impulsively embarks on a road trip from London to Bodmin, not knowing why, or what he’ll do when he finds Bramber, and they finally meet. He is bewitched by the adventure, exhilarated by his own daring, and drawn to Bramber, lured by her, like an enchantment in a fairy tale. His journey seems driven by a curious kind of love, as if he hopes to find the other half of himself. And does he find it? The trip falls short of his expectations; the meeting with Bramber is merely equivocal, but not hopeless. The ending is complex, but quietly happy. The final chapters were the best for me, drawing this odd story to a beautiful and satisfying conclusion.
Bramber urges Andrew to read Ewa Chaplin’s only book, a collection of short stories, which he does, on his journey. Chaplin writes magical, quasi-folk tales that abound with curious characters that speak to Bramber. They are windows to her soul. It’s easy to see what Bramber and Andrew get out of them, they all concern magical beings and outcasts: enchanters, lost souls, dwarves—dwarves crop up a lot. Andrew is not a dwarf, but he can relate.
These tales form the second strand of The Dollmaker and I’m afraid I found them less than enthralling. Some were better than others, some had the genuinely disturbing effect of a Grimm’s tale, but for the most part, I found them an irritation. They were all far too long; the parallels could have been more tightly, brightly worked. I could have enjoyed a three or four page break here and there; a few short, sweet, magical tales to season Andrew’s knightly quest by National Express would have been refreshing. As it was, I found them an unwelcome distraction. I understand why they were there, the fiction reflects Bramber and Andrew’s sad reality, their mutual predicament as art and life become one. But for me, the mechanics were too ponderous, self-conscious and often tedious. These over-lengthy stories broke the narrative, they took me out of Andrew’s head and Bramber’s story. They were something I had to get through so I could get back to Andrew. I would far rather have had more detail about Andrew’s dollmaking, or Bramber’s elusive past. If those stories had been shorter and/or less intrusive, this would have been a five star review.
Andrew is a remarkable character, I instantly warmed to him; his story and his journey captivated me. Bramber is a more elusive personality, but I came to love her too. Their mutual story captivated me. It’s a remarkable book. Not a fast or easy read, but anyone with a taste for the peculiar and macabre and finely-worked detail will surely love it.
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I am in charge of our Senior School library and am looking for a diverse array of new books to furnish their shelves with and inspire our young people to read a wider and more diverse range of books as they move through the senior school. It is hard sometimes to find books that will grab the attention of young people as their time is short and we are competing against technology and online entertainments.
This was a thought-provoking and well-written read that will appeal to young readers across the board. It had a really strong voice and a compelling narrative that I think would capture their attention and draw them in. It kept me engrossed and I think that it's so important that the books that we purchase for both our young people and our staff are appealing to as broad a range of readers as possible - as well as providing them with something a little 'different' that they might not have come across in school libraries before.
This was a really enjoyable read and I will definitely be purchasing a copy for school so that our young people can enjoy it for themselves. A satisfying and well-crafted read that I keep thinking about long after closing its final page - and that definitely makes it a must-buy for me!
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[To be published June 2nd]

Andrew Garvie has loved collecting antique dolls since he was a child, so much so that he now makes his own. Dolls that are very much like him, miniature (Andrew has proportionate dwarfism) but graceful, with plenty of hidden depths. One day, he answers an enigmatic personal ad in his collector’s magazine: “INFORMATION (biographical/bibliographical/photographic) on the life and work of EWA CHAPLIN AND/OR friendship, correspondence… Please reply to: Bramber Winters.”

With each letter, Bramber reveals more of her strange life in an institution on Bodmin Moor and Andrew falls more and more in love, to the point where he decides to play Sir Galahad and rescue her. He takes with him on this journey a copy of Ewa Chaplin’s fairy tales: strange, potent things, like her dolls, that eerily start to mirror reality. What will happen when Andrew and Bramber finally meet? Will they remain empty vessels, like their dolls, or will they finally come to life?

Nina Allan is known primarily for her speculative fiction – her debut, The Race, won the Grand Prix de L'imaginaire and her second novel, The Rift, won the British Science Fiction Award and the Kitschies Red Tentacle, as well as short fiction that has been shortlisted for the Hugo Award, the Shirley Jackson Award. and the British Fantasy Award. However, The Dollmaker isn’t as much of a departure as it may first appear. Both previous titles are characterised by narratives that span time and space and themes that question the nature of reality. The Dollmaker is described as “a love story about becoming real” and, though it appears to be literary, the short stories apparently having little to do with the main narrative. It uses the stories, and the motif of dolls themselves, to explore the idea of how reality is created (or, as it is put in the book, the “metaphysics of physics”).

The question of parallel realities and universes is posed. Both Andrew and Bramber are familiar with the feeling of belonging to a different world – Andrew because of his stature and Bramber because of her social awkwardness and, later, because of her surroundings in the mental institution. One character – Edwin, Bramber’s first love – even mentions a link between ghosts and parallel universes – that what we see as ghosts could just be echoes of other realities. So how are they created? Through objects? There is mention of the link between dolls and the human form and the beliefs surrounding this – the uncanny influence they seem to exert, tales of possessed dolls and the idea that by harming a doll made in someone’s image, you do harm to the person, echoed when Bramber destroys her doll that looks like her friend Helen for example, or when Andrew comes across a Ewa Chaplin doll, known as “Artist”, whose spell he seems to fall under.

Are they created through storytelling? Chaplin’s fairy tales are sandwiched between Andrew’s journey and Bramber’s letters, perfect self-contained set-pieces that encompass everything from the contemporary to the fantastical. There are a number of recurring motifs: firstly, dwarfs – court dwarfs especially, who were used by the monarchs of Europe to visually enhance their powerful positions and cater to the aristocracy’s fascination for anything “grotesque” and/or extraordinary – and their allusions to mythology and magic, particularly in the form of a poem about a dwarf who fell in love with and ended up murdering his queen (possible hints/foreshadows of a possible outcome for the relationship between Andrew and Bramber) and so there is a dwarf or dwarf-like character (a soldier who has lost both his legs, for example) in every story, who always act as agents of change.

Another recurring motif is transformative acts of creation: storytelling, alchemy, make up artistry, science, philosophy, journalism, painting and, of course, doll making. As he reads, Andrew begins to notice more and more characters and details that mirror his own life, the woman he fell in love with who went on to disappear without a trace, for instance, or the daughter of his best friend who’s a musical prodigy but seems to have trouble behaving or communicating in a manner considered normal. Even a particular story itself, ‘Amber Furness’ – another story about unrequited love between a woman and a dwarf, seems to take on a life of its own, mentioned in the main narrative as well as in other stories in the form of a play.

Or do we simply make reality by existing through it? As Edwin also reminds us, “time is a human construct” – things, people, memories can become more or less real. Because Andrew is just passing through the places he stays in they have a sense of unreality about them. He has never met Bramber in person before but has already managed to construct a “real” person from her letters.

The pace is thoughtful and measured, moving much more smoothly once you become used to the different narratives, building to an ending that is atmospheric but doesn’t seem to provide definitive answers for the questions posed. But whilst some may struggle with its slow start or its ambiguity of its ending, for those who can get past this they’ll find The Dollmaker is a book that lingers on in the mind long after finishing it, much like the tales of Chaplin herself.
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