I am constantly hungry for friendships in fiction. This isn’t to say there aren’t any. But fiction about friendship — where it’s the story’s focus, an end in itself, and a treasured thing to be kept, protected and fought for — is rare and precious to me. When I find it, I tend to sing its praises, and in this respect Natasha Pulley’s “The Watchmaker of Filigree Street” has me running scales.
It’s autumn 1883, and Thaniel Steepleton is a telegraphist for the Home Office. A talented pianist who hears color in sound, he’s nevertheless spent the last four years deadening his soul in London’s civil service to support his widowed sister and her children in Edinburgh.
Friendless, working long hours six days a week, Thaniel finds he has little to set in order in the event of Irish terrorist group Clan na Gael carrying out the bomb threats they’ve issued against the city’s public buildings. But one day he returns home to find someone has left him the gift of a mysterious gold pocket watch that’s warm to the touch and impossible to open or give away.
Eventually Thaniel forgets about the watch, but six months later it saves his life by warning him away from a bomb blast. Searching for answers, Thaniel seeks out Keita Mori, the Japanese dignitary turned clockmaker who made the watch and who, it turns out, is clairvoyant. Though he winds up with far more questions than answers, Thaniel finds a friend.
Meanwhile, Grace Carrow, a physics student at Oxford, is trying to obtain a fellowship from her college to avoid getting married, as her parents would prefer. She sets out to prove the existence of the ether, a substance purported to conduct light in the way air conducts sound.
When her path crosses Thaniel’s, the plot shifts into a different and ultimately more threatening gear, as Grace’s working theory about the ether might explain how Mori is able to “remember” the future with potentially sinister implications.
Reading this book was like watching light slowly flooding a dismal room. The difference in Thaniel’s outlook, habits and happiness before and after meeting Mori moved me to tears. The tenderness, the small kindnesses given by lonely men to each other in the absence of words — sweetening a mug of hot water and lemon with honey, buying sheet music, baking sweets — was deeply beautiful. I would have happily read a whole novel shorn of any incident but their growing love for and trust of each other.
But there’s a great deal more than that here: humor, wit, mystery and danger are threaded through the book in musical measure. It dances between genres and makes partners of several: one could call it steampunk for its Victoriana and etheric experimentation, science fiction for its musings on determinism, historical fantasy for the ways in which those elements are seamlessly blended with late 19th century London.
The book is at its best in the character moments, the banter between wonderful characters in an immersive setting. When the plot turns toward action, toward realization of the threats implicit in Mori’s powers, the pacing is no longer quite as smooth. That’s especially true toward the end, which — though satisfying — felt rushed, a minuet turned fugue. But Pulley’s capacity for making antagonists out of fully realized and sympathetic characters is impressive, as is her ability to keep one guessing as the plot ticks along.
There’s nothing quite like putting down a delightful, relentlessly charming and deeply moving book and then finding out it’s the author’s first. “The Watchmaker of Filigree Street” is a remarkable debut, and I look forward to seeing what Pulley does next.
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street
Bloomsbury: 336 pp., $26
El-Mohtar is a writer who lives in Ottawa and Glasgow.
MORE FROM BOOKS:
Get ready to be obsessed by these 29 page-turners