The blurb of this book says Natasha Pulley’s debut novel is ‘utterly beguiling’ and well, I’m not going to argue. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is beguiling in spades. But wonderful too. On the surface it’s a kind of whodunit about a real event, the bombing of Scotland Yard in 1884 by Irish nationalists.
Twenty-five-year-old Nathaniel (Thaniel) Steepleton is a telegraphist for the Home Office – his abandoned skill as a pianist has trained him well for the quick interpretation of cables – when reports of planned bombings of official locations around London come through. Back home at his meagre room in Pimlico, Thaniel discovers a strange but beautiful watch among his effects – a watch that doesn’t work until towards the bombing that almost kills him, but saves him just in time.
Grace Carrow has a watch too. She’s in her last term studying physics at Oxford, hoping to discover and measure the existence of ether, the substance Victorian scientists believed to be the vehicle for light. Light travels faster than sound so it was thought that while sound travelled through air, light must travel through a different substance to make it quicker. Grace is out to prove it, but struggling, not only with something that in the end didn’t pan out, but also her destiny as the daughter of a lord to settle down and marry well.
But all Grace wants is a basement somewhere full of bunsen burners and test-tubes. She’s had to cut off her hair because she accidentally set fire to it, which is kind of convenient for when she sneaks into the male-only library dressed as a man. I like Grace.
These two main characters eventually become connected through a third – you guessed it the watchmaker of the title. Thaniel, wanting to find out more about his watch, hunts him out and finds an enigmatic Japanese artisan, Keita Mori. Mori is also of noble birth and we get a picture of his heritage in Japan which Pulley creates beautifully here. There are further Japanese links – a model village nearby in Knightsbridge and Grace’s friend at Oxford, the dandyish Matsumoto.
And then there’s the clockwork. Mori not only makes beautiful watches, he creates flying insects and has an articulated octopus that steals socks. While the police are wondering if his handiwork is behind the bomb-making terrorising London, Gilbert and Sullivan are rehearsing The Mikado, set to debut at the model village. There are layers of music – which incidentally, Thaniel can see in colours – dazzling magical effects, fireworks, clairvoyance and even modern art incorporated into this complex, delightful and (that word again) beguiling story.
It is so easy to become swept away with all the visual images here, the elegant writing and the Victorian and Japanese settings but you need to have your wits about you to keep up with the plot as Pulley also plays with time and memory. But even if I do feel as if I’ve missed a few important details and a reread may be in order, I can’t help feeling that this has been a particularly pleasurable entertainment. The sequel, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, is already on my ‘to read’ list for 2021. This one gets a four out of five from me.