Steampunk meets historical fiction meets magical realism in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. It’s not a happy encounter.
Natasha Pulley’s debut novel is set primarily in 1880s London (with an occasional diversion to Japan), where Nathaniel Steepleton is a lowly telegraph clerk at the Home Office. In Oxford, Grace Carrow, the daughter of a titled family is studying physics at one of the city’s new colleges for women. The pair are drawn together by their encounters with the enigmatic figure of a master watchmaker who is able to predict the future.
This is a time of political unrest as an Irish republican movement embark on a bombing campaign targeting public buildings in the capital. They succeed in destroying Victoria railway station and part of Scotland Yard. Thaniel narrowly escapes one explosion because of an ear-piercing alarm from an exquisitely-made gold pocket watch that had been left on his bed during a break-in at his lodgings.
Curiosity about the watch leads Thaniel to the medieval buildings of Filigree Street and the mysterious Keito Mori, a high-born Japanese expatriate and mechanical genius The two become friends though Thaniel has a nagging feeling that Mori is somehow connected to the bombings.
Much of the narrative of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street revolves around this deepening friendship though the pace ramps up and moves more into an adventure-type plot once Grace Carrow comes on the scene. She has her own suspicions about Mori and misgivings about his increasing influence on Thaniel.
Neither element worked well for me. The ‘romance’ that supposedly develops between Thaniel and Grace wasn’t convincing and the plot thread about the identity of the bomb-maker became unnecessarily confusing.
The novel was much stronger when it was operating in the realm of historical fiction and focused on setting rather than plot.
Natasha Pulley had me hooked with her depiction of Victorian London; its burgeoning system of telegrams that bounce between government buildings and a rapidly expanding underground train system.
We also get to see a slice of the city that I never knew existed: a traditional Japanese village complete with tea house. I wasn’t sure whether this was a figment of Pulley’s imagination but a quick piece of research showed that there was indeed a village built in Knightsbridge to capitalise on the enthusiasm for all things Japanese during the 1870s. Also true was that Gilbert and Sullivan (who have a walk on part in the novel) visited the village as they were creating The Mikado.
It was when we stepped through the doors of Mori’s home at Filigree Street that we got the full effect of Natasha Pulley’s imagination. Mori’s workshop is a magical place full of electric lights that respond to movement and clockwork creations like Katsu, a mischievous octopus that loves to steal socks and climb up furniture legs.
Thaniel is dumbfounded by his first view of this workshop:
Across the wall beside him was a tall pendulum clock, its movement regulated by the jointed wings and knees of a golden locust. A mechanical model of the solar system spun in mid-air, floating on magnets, and up two steps in the tiered floor, little bronze birds sat perched on the edge of the desk. One of them hopped on to the microscope and tapped its beak hopefully on the brass fittings. Things glimmered and clicked everywhere.
I can appreciate how The Watchmaker of Filigree Street will wow many readers, particularly those who enjoy an element of fantasy blended with historical fiction. But I won’t be joining the fan club.
Fantasy isn’t my cup of tea but I can tolerate it in small doses as long as there is more to the book than fantasy for fantasy’s sake. I was on the look-out for that additional dimension here but it never materialised. The characters (with the exception of Katsu) didn’t engage my attention because I never really felt I got to know them or their motives. The plot became so confusing I wasn’t even sure by the end how it had been resolved. And the writing often tended to be stilted and convoluted – I had to read some sentences multiple times but still didn’t understand the point being made.
Though it had did have some components that were interesting, overall I thought The Watchmaker of Filigree Street tried to incorporate too many different elements and ended up being a tiresome mishmash.
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley: Footnotes
Published by Bloomsbury in 2015, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street won a Betty Trask award in 2016 and featured in the Sunday Times bestseller list for many weeks during the summer of 2016. It was Natasha Pulley’s debut novel, researched in part while she lived in Tokyo for 18 months on a scholarship from the Daiwa Anglo Japanese Foundation. A follow up novel, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, which was published in 2020, sees Thaniel and Keita Mori reunited in Tokyo.