Review – The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

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Review – The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

I have been a fan of Angela Carter since 2011, when a college professor assigned her short story “The Erl-King” for a critical theory class, and since then I have gone on to read a few other stories from Carter’s famous collection, The Bloody Chamber. The way Carter is able to write about the erotic, instinctual side of human nature is something that I hold in great admiration. I also find that she had a great ear for language, as her sentences flow with a folky, feminine rhythm, a quality that is reminiscent to me of Virginia Woolf, and her own rich, elegant, ornamented prose. 

This novel tells the coming of age story of fourteen-year-old Melanie, whose childhood comes to an end after her parents die in a fatal accident. She is sent to London with her younger siblings, Jonathan and Victoria, to live with Uncle Philip, a controlling, tyrannic toyshop proprietor who puts on strange puppet shows for the family. The other occupants of the house include Philip’s wife Margaret, who is friendly but mute, and her younger brothers, the dirty Finn and cordial Francie. Carter’s characterizations excel, as Philip’s totalitarianism depresses the other characters to an observable effect. Jonathan engrosses himself in building model ships, and Victoria, only a baby, is spoiled by Margaret, and thus unaware of the growing tension in the house. Finn is full of life, hopelessly filthy, and shown to be interested in Melanie romantically. Melanie is suspicious of Finn’s intentions, and her loneliness is worthy of note, as we see that her inability to trust the other people of the house distorts the reader’s perception of who is “moral,” or “likable,” and at times this is jarring for one’s summation of the circumstances presented. At the end of the novel, Philip one day steps unexpectedly out of the house, and Melanie and company indulge in a carefree, defiant, Saturnalia-like afternoon. Francie and Margaret are revealed to be incestuous, and Finn unexpectedly washes himself.  

The only word I have for this book is “weird,”and despite the seemingly juvenile front cover, it is very much an adult book, and also a challenging read. There is certainly a method in Carter’s madness, as she acknowledges a side of humanity that most people would not like to think about, so much that I think the book could possibly qualify as horror. Sex also bleeds throughout the narrative. I did think however that Philip was written to be somewhat of straw man: though I understand that Carter was a feminist, I would have liked to see a more balanced take on his character. This is just personal preference however, and not a technical flaw. I absolutely enjoyed this book. 

Carter, Angela. The Magic Toyshop. Virago Modern Classics, 1992. Print.

Double Review – ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell

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Double Review – ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’ by George Orwell

Why I have come to Orwell so late in life, I don’t know, but perhaps later is better than never. I have noticed that Orwell’s popularity, while not undeserved, is mainly derived from teenagers, or young college people, in their first throes of literary sophistication. Oftentimes it is easy to compare the societies depicted in these books to America at large, and this is done with a kind of underdeveloped agenda. Maybe this has prevented me from coming to the novels sooner, regardless, I have always been curious as to why the books are so popular. I finally came across two copies at my work and decided to give Orwell a whirl, and when you consider the books away from the annoying fan base, they actually are worth the time to read.

Animal Farm is a short book, an allegory meant to shed light on the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Republic under Stalin. Similar to the way South Park is able to critique society using children in a small Colorado town, Orwell is able to simulate Russia’s history using animals on an English farm. The animals rebel against the alcoholic farmer Jones, who is unable to competently manage his farm, and the pigs, who seem to represent the intellectual class, assume leadership. We see that the pigs are clever and they use different strategies to trick the other animals into losing their freedoms. By the end of the book, we see that the the pigs have become just like their former master Jones. The book isn’t a work of genius, however it is a refreshing analogy, as it makes one question the role of government and law makers.

Benjamin is an interesting character, as he seems to be intelligent, critical, and aware of all the injustices that the pigs commit, yet he does nothing, simply because he is jaded and cynical. Orwell seems to be commenting on the phenomenon of apathy, and the idea that social change doesn’t happen sadly because people have no desire to instigate it. I also thought the ending of the book to be profound, as we see the pigs cheating at poker during a meeting with the neighboring farmers, and this scene made me wonder whether or not the pigs would be able to maintain power had the story continued.

If Animal Farm is the perfected minor work, then 1984 is the ambitious, flawed epic. At the end of Animal Farm, I was sad to see that no justice was served against the pigs. However, by the time I finished 1984, I was not expecting any justice, and both works are quite realistic and sobering in this regard. Orwell shows that love, in the sense that we think about love in our “free world,” cannot exist unless it fits within the confines of the state. The relationship between Julia and Winston revolves much around their distaste for Big Brother. Identity is also a theme that is examined, and the anonymous nature of the state is a postmodern motif: it is one that incites paranoia, by clouding the identity of the powers that be. Wilson and Julia attempt to rebel and mete out an identity separate from the realm of Big Brother, yet they have no idea how to go about doing so. When Winston finally goes through his transformation, he is tortured, beaten, starved, and stripped of identity. Once he is brought down to his lowest point, he is then nurtured back to health on the generosity of the state. He is reinvented and thus his allegiance begins. One thinks about omnipotence, that the state is transcending, the state is everything.  I recommend both books.

Orwell, George. Animal Farm. Signet, 1961. Print.

Orwell, George. 1984. Signet, 1961. Print.