A Memento by Mori: a Review of Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

Bloomsbury Circus must have had a surfeit of confidence in Ms Pulley’s debut novel to make such a handsome volume out of it. I assume it must have cost extra to punch that peephole in all the hardback covers, and I can see why they did it. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street has all the ingredients of a hit: it is a very unconventional detective story set in London in the Victorian era but it is also a work of science fiction or fantasy, question mark? And in spite of its Holmesian set up, there is no detective character in it. In lieu of the Baker Street sleuth, we get an equally eccentric Japanese horologist from Filigree Street who is arguably as interesting a figure as Sherlock Holmes himself, though in a very different way.

Thaniel Steepleton is our Watson: a telegraphist who was working for the Home Office when the Fenian dynamite campaign orchestrated by Irish republicans was well underway in the late 19th century. One day, he returned to his threadbare apartment to find that someone had broken in but instead of taking anything, the mysterious intruder had left a rosy gold pocket watch of exquisite workmanship as a gift for him (and also did his dishes to boot). A game is afoot, but Thaniel hadn’t the slightest clue what game it is.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (2015) by Natasha Pulley

We also get another point-of-view character in Grace Carrrow who I must say was designed in a lab with the specific goal of irking me. She was an unconventionally educated high society lady with aspirations of making breakthroughs in the field of physics, and was not above breaking any and all restrictive Victorian gender norms in order do it. That is all fine and good, but she also possessed the air of a woman who thought she was superior to other members of her sex. She casually insulted other women in order to differentiate herself from them. She denigrated the nascent suffragist movement (even though she chafed mightily under the same gender restrictions they were fighting against), considered women too shallow to participate in politics, and even threatened to move to Germany if women ever get the vote. Women of her vintage did and still exist, of course, but it did not make her any less insufferable.

She had set up in Lady Margaret Hall’s deep, silent cellar, where everyone left her alone. Mostly alone. Matsumoto called every day at three o’clock to make sure that she hadn’t blown herself up. She had tried to explain that she hadn’t got any explosives and therefore couldn’t explode, but he only said it was dangerous to imagine she wouldn’t find a way.

To give credit where credit is due, I like how Ms Pulley gave a more metropolitan view of Victorian England than most authors playing in the same sandbox. The period of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street did in fact coincide with the Meiji Restoration period in which Japan underwent westernising reforms and even adopted a peerage system called the kazoku, which replaced old feudal titles with new ones like counts and barons. So it makes sense that Japanese noblemen characters like Akira Matsumoto (a friend of Grace) would be enrolled at Oxford, speak English flawlessly, and behave exactly like any regular English fop. It was also unsurprising that someone like our titular watchmaker, Keita Mori, would speak English with a northern accent—though the reason for that is a more unorthodox one.

Still, there is something about Ms Pulley’s depiction of the Japanese, especially in the flashback scenes in Japan itself, that felt un-Asian to me as an Asian person. While the Japanese characters do in fact experienced many instances of period-appropriate racism (which were inserted deliberately into the novel), there were also some moments which gave me pause as they weren’t contextualised to be racist in the text: like when Grace tried to pull against Matsumoto and found him “unexpectedly strong” even though he was both a man and a head taller than she was, or that remark about how only children and oriental watchmakers have the requisite small hands to achieve work of surpassing fineness, or when Thaniel found it difficult to read Mori’s expression because of “the unfamiliar structure of the bones in his face.” I don’t know about you but I am pretty sure we have all the same facial muscles and make all the same faces as Europeans do.

That aside, I did find Ms Pulley’s writing diverting enough to finish the book in a day. I love all the historical in-jokes and cameos, and I was sufficiently invested in the mystery of the suddenly appearing watch (and of the queer foreign samurai watchmaker who seems to be at the centre of everything) to want to know where everything was leading to. Ms Pulley had written a book which is very much like an intricate piece of clockwork itself. Everything rotated into place by the end as if they meant to be there from the start in a manner which I imagine one would find rewarding on rereads.

The chief complaint I have is that for a story about ticking bombs, there is a strange lack of urgency and propulsion in the plot. All the characters felt a bit like deterministic cogs merely playing out their assigned functions. I often feel like they do things simply because the author wanted them to, and not because their actions came from any sense of agency. And when the long withheld reveals and conclusions finally arrived, they came too late to incite any feeling of excitement or surprise in me. Did I enjoy it? Yes, I guess. Will I read the other books in this series? Probably, but I am in absolutely no hurry to do it.

Rating: 3/5 Naga Pearls

If you like what you are reading, maybe you can Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com to keep this Naga caffeinated!

Published by A Naga of the Nusantara

A Naga is a divine dragon from Eastern Hindu-Buddhist tradition. The Nusantara is made up of nusa (island) and antara (between) and describes the Southeast Asian archipelago that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. This particular Naga is Malaysian, born and bred. He loves reading and hoarding books, and enjoys bothering humans with what he thinks of them.

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