This review contains spoilers.
Nina Allan’s unsettling 2019 novel The Dollmaker is one of those books that confounds readerly expectations at nearly every turn. It’s the story of two doll collectors, Andrew and Bramber, who strike up a correspondence when Andrew answers a classified of Bramber’s asking for information about the fictional 20th century dollmaker Ewa Chaplin. After some months of this correspondence – of which we’re given Bramber’s letters, but never Andrew’s – Andrew finds himself infatuated, and sets off on a journey into the rural south of England to visit Bramber, who, as we know from clues in her letters that Andrew doesn’t seem to have picked up on, lives in a group home for people with mental illnesses. Interleaved with Bramber’s letters and Andrew’s first-person narration of his journey are a number of dark little fairytales purportedly by Ewa Chaplin that feature uncanny echoes of events in Andrew’s life. The figure of a dwarf, in particular – Andrew is just four feet nine inches high – crops up again and again, usually in the context of a forbidden love for a queen.
It’s hard to know what to make of these echoes, and Allan seems keen to uphold this uncertainty rather than resolve it: Chaplin’s stories are neither comfortingly hived-off from the main narrative, in which case we could read them as metaphorical only, nor literally connected to it on the level of plot. Similarly, Allan deflates our readerly expectations of Andrew’s story: his journey to meet Bramber against her will feels like it will end in disappointment and possibly murder (as Abigail Nussbaum points out), but instead there is a sense almost of anti-climax, a refusal to resolve the story either way. The future remains open for this pair: maybe something will come of this unlikely meeting of minds, but then again maybe it will not.
I think there is meant to be something redemptive and perhaps humanising about this uncertainty: both Andrew and Bramber are damaged, Andrew by an abusive relationship in his young adulthood and a lifetime of bullying and discrimination based on his stature, and Bramber by what she sees as her childhood betrayal of her mother. Their tentative rapprochement at the end perhaps signals an entry for both of them into a more moderate mode of life, one marked by the small compromises and uncertainties that we see in real, healthy relationships, especially at their beginnings, rather than the grand Gothic dramas of Ewa Chaplin’s stories or the hideousness that characterised both of their childhoods. An entry, in other words, into the world of what we might consider literary realism, out of the world of high romance or crime drama or horror story, all the genres that the novel as a whole flirts with.
Which is certainly an interesting thing to do: a process of de-fictionalisation, almost, of making these characters no longer characters who need to be in a story, and making that a triumph for both of them. But as a reader I personally found it unsatisfying: I wanted the text to cohere, to suggest possible meanings a little more forcefully, rather than leaving absolutely everything open and unresolved. That said, I wouldn’t hesitate to read more of Allan’s work: The Dollmaker may have failed for me on the whole, but it was at least an interesting failure.