Oct/Nov 2015  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

Review by Ann Skea

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street.
Natasha Pulley.
Bloomsbury. 2015. 318 pp.
ISBN 978 1 4088 5429 7.

Can one feel sad about the demise of a mechanical octopus? Yes, if it usually sleeps on your pillow, steals socks and ties, hides in drawers, and seems to have a mind and personality of its own. Katsu the octopus was made by Keita Mori, the master Japanese watchmaker whose strange ability to know the future haunts this book. And it is this clairvoyance which leads him to Nathaniel (Thaniel) Steepleton, for very special reasons.

Thaniel is a Home Office telegraph clerk working in London in 1883. Wireless telegraph, steam-driven underground trains, society balls, and women university students who must be accompanied to the University library by a man, are all part of this world. So, too, are the bomb threats made by the Irish Fenians, Clan na Gael.

On the day that Thaniel takes down a telegraph message warning that all public buildings in London will be bombed exactly six-months hence, he also returns to his boarding house room in Pimlico to find his door-latch open, the stove lit, and used crockery washed and put away in his cupboard. On his bed he finds a small velvet box addressed to him, and inside is a fine rose-gold watch and chain. There is no indication of who has left it. Also, it does not seem to be working.

Thaniel's sister in Scotland knows nothing about it. The police are uninterested in a burglar who leaves things rather than stealing them. And pawnbrokers will not take it because watches like this one "just disappear." When weeks later the watch suddenly clicks open and starts working, Thaniel finds Keita Mori's name and address inside it. And when its alarm subsequently saves him from a devastating bomb blast, he seeks out Mr Mori and their strange friendship begins.

Mori is expert at making tiny mechanical toys. He uses clockwork, chemicals, and gunpowder to create fireflies that fly, fairies, and fireworks. But Thaniel is not the only person to own one of his intricate and unusual watches.

Grace Carrow, who is in her fourth year of studying science at Oxford University, owns one in which a delicate filigree mechanism releases a tiny flying swallow when she opens the back. Grace, who is obsessed with experiments she hopes will prove the existence of luminiferous ether (a theoretical element that carries light-waves and other energies), uses her watch to distract her from boring meetings. Grace also has a Japanese friend, Matsumoto, who is "the elegant son of a Japanese noble-man" and is "not so much a student as a very, very rich tourist." Grace purloins Matsumoto's jackets so that she can pose as a man in order to get into the university library. They tease each other and suit each other well, each being smart, contrary, and determined, but this is not just the story of their romance.

Instead, this is a mystery, a history, a fantasy, as well as a very strange love story. The story moves backwards and forwards in time, and there are chapters set in Japan as well as in Oxford and London. The Japanese community in London is involved, there are tough little orphan children who help out in Mori's workshop, and Thaniel meets Gilbert and Sullivan at the Japanese village and is hired to a play the piano in an open-air performance of The Mikado.

Of course, the lives of all these people become entangled, but at the heart of the book is Keita Mori, his curious inventions, his uncanny knowledge of future events, and his interventions in situations he knows will occur. He knows in advance what people will say and do: mid-conversation, he casually intercepts a baseball that would have broken his nose; he manipulates the deaths of several men who threaten the life of Ito, who is Japan's Minister of the Interior and for whom he works; and he is, somehow, closely involved in the bombings that occur in London.

Natasha Pulley has a delightfully wry sense of humor, her characters are likeable and believable, and you keep reading because you never quite know what will happen next. The story is intricately plotted, and towards the end of the book it does get a little confusing as the doubleness, trickery, and foreknowledge of some of the characters bring the story to a climax and a denouement.

All becomes clear in the end. But did Katsu the octopus survive? Thaniel, who sees sounds as colors, saw/heard Katsu's colors linked to a terrible bomb blast. But the sudden appearance of a very significant heavy-duty bolt in Mori's hands in the final paragraph of the book is suspiciously like something Katsu might have helped to arrange. Natasha Pulley never explains the mystery of the heavy-duty bolt but leaves it as a thought-provoking ending to her book.


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