This is a strange, complicated story, involving time and mind-reading and intricate clockwork. Pulley’s debut novel is artfully written and most importantly, the characters are well-drawn – except where they’re meant to be mysterious. I will say I struggled a bit with the last third of the book, so I can’t call it a five-star read, but I found it fascinating and I’m still puzzling through it.
Our protagonist is Thaniel Steepleton, who works for the Home Office in London as a telegraph operator in 1883. He receives a telegraph from an Irish group, Clan Na Gael, threatening a bombing in six months. That same day, someone breaks into his little apartment and leaves him a gift – a gold pocket watch. Six months later, despite all precautions, the bomb goes off, and the watch mysteriously saves Thaniel’s life. Since the watchmaker, had to have known about the bomb, the watchmaker, a Japanese immigrant named Keita Mori, becomes suspect #1. Only Thaniel owes him his life.
If you’re not intrigued, this isn’t the book for you.
I found Thaniel to be a really sympathetic, if passive, character, and I liked Mori as well. Our third character is Grace Carrow, a young woman from a high class family who doesn’t want to marry well; she wants to study science and experiment in a lab. None of them fits into regular society. Thaniel and Grace are torn between what they long to do (Thaniel is a talented musician, and Grace a scientist) and what they feel they have to do (mostly limited by finances). When they become friends I felt a huge sense of relief for these two lonely, misunderstood characters.
This book was much more than just a steampunk novel. There’s mystery and paranormal elements, but the book also explores what life was like for Japanese immigrants in the 1880’s, describing a Japanese village designed as a showplace for English tourists, and the conflicts immigrants face when deciding how much to integrate the two cultures (for example, in their dress and speech).
The future and the past are important elements in the story. Mori has knowledge about what will happen, and it’s a constant question how much he is able to use that knowledge to shape events. And for that matter, how much we all have the ability to change what will happen next.
I started having trouble with this book about two-thirds of the way through, when the plot starts jumping around a lot, and the language suddenly becomes a lot more mysterious. It’s clear that Pulley is hiding things from us. Grace, who was so likeable to this point (if a bit one-note) becomes angry and seemingly thoughtless. I found myself reading passages multiple times to figure out what was happening, and what the characters meant by some of the things they said. And I started to feel frustrated. The characters start to feel flat as the story gets more complicated.
It’s all intentional, but I’m not sure it all works. That said, I like some ambiguity in what I read, and I like a book that’s a challenge. Pulley’s book had both.
It’s a fair question, by the way, whether the enigmatic Mori is an Asian stereotype or a complex character. I lean on the side of complex – he didn’t seem one-dimensional to me. But I’d be interested to hear what others thought.
Coincidentally, I seem to be drawn at the moment to books where time is the theme. I’m reading Ruth Ozeki’s Tale for the Time Being and Jack Finney’s Time and Again. I love when book-coincidences happen (and they happen a lot). I’ll let you know how it all turns out.