I hate reading books in the wrong order. I am a tidy girl who irons her bed sheets and has a neat sock drawer. I like things to be in their proper place and that includes books. Regular readers of this blog may recall my joy at discovering the work of Ursula Holden back in April when I reviewed her novel Unicorn Sisters. Well, drunk on discovery, reckless in pursuit of more, I ordered another of her little novels: Tin Toys on Amazon. It was a good read which I do not regret at all, but for anyone who may like to try it – it should be read before reading Unicorn Sisters. That’s right folks: there is, emerging from my Ursula Holden detective work, evidence of a trilogy of books, starting with Tin Toys then Unicorn Sisters and finally A Bubble Garden. So bare that in mind all ye who enter here.
Tin Toys is an odd and disquieting little book. It is the story of Ula – a little girl in the 1930s whose father has died, whose mother is woefully negligent and whose two older sisters have built a protective world for themselves, from which she is excluded. The household is riven with divisions of age and class and nationality and gender and for the most part, the segregation reinforces and breeds an atmosphere of dark loves and lonely prejudice. This is not a kind home in which to grow up and so it is no real shock that Ula herself is a peculiar child who struggles to connect with others. She is at once too cagey and also too candid.
When tragedy strikes the household Ula is packed off to Ireland and it is there that she will encounter the shock of cruelty and the web of deceptions and half truths that make up adult mores. Ula is a child and her judgement is both infant and flawed. She does not know whom to trust nor whom to love. She reaches out to several people but many of them will prove to be sorry friends. Maggie, the Irish cook/cleaner impresses Ula with her warmth and cosy tales of her homeland. Lucy, the child whom Ula meets at ballet class bewitches her with her wedgewood blue eyes and air of confidence. In Tin Toys, Ula learns the hard lesson of childhood; that adults can be as cruel and deluded and children.
It is the style and atmosphere of Tin Toys that really causes one to remember it. It is clipped and savage as a fairy tale. Things happen and they cannot be stopped or even explained. It is like all the world is locked into a fast train rattling who knows where with no hope of escape. Which brings me neatly to the front cover. The Methuen Modern Fiction paperback that I have is illustrated with Mark Gertler’s famous first world war painting Merry-Go-Round. The Merry-Go-Round is a frightening response to the mechanisation and horror of warfare in black, white and blood red. At first I thought it was an odd choice for the front cover of this book, but now I understand.
If pushed, I would have to say that Tin Toys did not quite have the emotional power of Unicorn Sisters, but it is still very good and they are so clearly from the same pen. Ula’s development is not necessarily an easy watch – but it is extremely well written and deserves not to be forgotten.
I have included a picture of the book and also (by popular acclamation!) pictures from our garden.