Natasha Pulley paints beautiful a romantic picture of eighteen-eighties London, and fills it with enthralling characters in her debut novel. We follow the lives of Thaniel – a government telegraphist and synesthete, and Grace – a scientist on the search for luminiferous ether. The novel depicts their lives becoming increasingly entangled around each other with a mysterious Japanese baron-turned-watchmaker Mori. The Watchmaker is furnished with many more fantastical features: a semi-sentient clockwork octopus, political intrigue, a foreign minister on rollerskates, and a whole café filled with surreal east-Asian characters and scenery.
Successfully managing the tricky balancing act between an overly-sparse and a rich framework of settings and supporting characters, Pulley has crafted a well-paced, thoughtful book. However, it’s just not thought provoking. The Watchmaker makes for a fun enough story to pick up, read, and put down again – with nothing else to it.
While this can be perfectly satisfying for some relaxing reading, but if you’re looking for some rich historical fiction, this isn’t for you. There are plenty of unexplained anachronisms, and when the plot refers to historical events they’re largely irrelevant. The Clan na Gael could be any nationalistic group, and the historical detail about English relations with them (and with the Japanese through various obscure wars) serve as paragraph-long distractions from the brunt of the tale.
There also seems to be something missing from the plot. I make this point tentatively, because it could also be interpreted as Pulley making some commentary on the nature of Grace. Yet, on a loose reading, there’s several plot-holes and out-of-character behaviours – especially in the concluding chapters.
There’s twist endings, and then there’s the ending of The Watchmaker. A “twist” doesn’t quite cover it – it seemed like the end to an entirely different book. Even after flicking back through the book, looking for clues that I may have missed in a first reading (I didn’t find any), it just made no sense. It was a perfectly nice conclusion – especially in the final chapter, when all the drama died down – but I’ve left the novel feeling dissatisfied and confused. Again, it is worth considering whether Pulley was trying to make some kind of commentary around the themes of ‘convention’ or ‘Victorian-ness’.
But here we reach the crux of the matter with The Watchmaker. There’s constant fluctuation between genuinely intelligent and well-crafted storytelling, and cheap, rehashed technique. It’s a real shame. Pulley has got plenty of finer, fulfilling moments, but these are tarnished by the more mediocre, disappointing ones. The characters (when they’re in character) are great, and the world created for them is fascinating, but the plot just doesn’t do them justice.