Black magic?

I've always rather liked Angela Carter. I enjoy her particular brand of magic realism, the weird faerie-world that provides the backdrop for many of her novels mixed with a good dose of feminism. The fairy-story related short stories are brilliant, not least the wonderful and unforgettable Company of Wolves. It's a very long time since I read Carter's The magic toyshop written early in the writer's career in 1967. On re-reading it I found it a profoundly uncomfortable read.

The novel follows Melanie, a young girl on the cusp of womanhood. When Melanie's parents are killed in an accident, she and her younger siblings go to live with their Uncle Philip, the owner of the magic toyshop. Philip lives with his dumb wife, Margaret and her two brothers over the shop. It is a strange collection of people that are to form Melanie's new life. Melanie starts to discover her own sexuality as she stands on the threshold of a relationship with Finn, Aunt Margaret's brother. While Philip has his own plans for introducing Melanie to womanhood.....

It's startlingly well written, there are some brilliant set pieces, but the overall impression I was left with of the novel was profoundly unpleasant. The central part of the plot revolves around a puppet show in which Philip arranges for Melanie to be dressed as Leda to be "raped" by his puppet swan in front of the household. The rape is aborted due to Finn's intervention. What with that, a good dose of incest, and an underlying feeling of unease, I found this a difficult novel to read. I felt disturbed when I was reading it, and the feeling stayed for some time afterwards.

Angela Carter can be the oddest of writers. Sexuality, magic, and brutality are often mixed together in her novel, but normally she pulls it off brilliantly. She is never the most comfortable of reads but you still want to go back to her novels; but I don't think I'll be reading The magic toyshop again.



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