The stories are modern fairytales, in the macabre and claustrophobic tradition of Angela Carter, and richly veined with myth and folklore. Their settings are half-recognisable – a twilit Mitteleuropa, a London overshadowed by fascism – and their recurring motifs foreboding. There is disfigurement and banishment, jealousy and thwarted triumph. And there is a more persistent theme: the doomed love of a wilful queen for her court dwarf. He is a figure not of ridicule but of enigmatic potency, who destroys the queen because he cannot possess her. Dolls are people, it seems, but perhaps not quite like us...he Dollmaker purports to be “a love story about becoming real”, and perhaps it is, in its sad and mischievous way. But it is a story, too, about becoming unreal, about what we choose to see, even in dolls, when we ourselves have gone for too long unseen.
Allan writes about neglect and transgression very well. There are some wonderfully taut scenes in which characters betray one another, often violently. But it is hard to remain gripped by the rest. Andrew’s meandering journey from London to Cornwall is stretched out tediously, and more than once I found myself asking why I should care, about him or anything he is doing. While Allan has crowded the book with imaginative protagonists — sinister shopkeepers, a paedophilic collector of automata — none, including the dolls, emerges as a character worth rooting for.