Liam Pieper’s memoir The Feel-Good Hit of the Year was one of my favourite books of 2014. I also really enjoyed his follow-up – a small collection of essays that told more about his early adulthood, having survived his tumultuous youth. He writes beautifully with candour, sensitivity and humour. I was interested to see what he would do with fiction and I was happy to see that he can readily turn his hand to this genre as well.
The Toymaker is set in part in Australia centred on Adam, who runs a successful toy business. He is ‘a destructive power both insidious and spectacular, a great storm front of a man who would tear the roof off your life even as floodwaters rose to claim the rest of it’. Adam couldn’t stand entitled children, but not seeing the irony, is one himself.
His wife Tess looks after the book although she ‘wasn’t groomed for it, really wasn’t qualified to clean its toilets; her only training was in the arts, specifically in making puppets’.
Adam’s grandfather, Arkady, started the business and although retired, assists Tess at times. They have a close relationship. ‘She loved her child, adored her husband, but Arkady was her best, possibly only, friend. He was the one she turned to when she had a problem, and she relied on his unflappable old-school charm to cheer her up and steer her towards a solution’.
The novel also flashes back to Arkady’s younger days, in Auschwitz. Initially he was forced to work in the gas chambers. He ‘learned, after a tooth lost to the butt of a pistol and a night spent hanging from a hook with his arms wrenched behind his back, the full weight of his body sawing at the ligaments in his shoulders, to cooperate. So now he worked the ovens, hosed down the gas chambers, helped with the murders to stave off his own death, even though it was killing him’
But then when a Nazi doctor realised he had some medical training he had him join in the experimental work they were doing on prisoners. This was almost as difficult morally, but he had no choice but to go along with this work as well, and the living conditions for him were better. He started making toys there as he ’understood people, and understood that the only things keeping the adults going were their children, and if the children in the camps were to lose hope, all would be lost. So he worked out how to keep the children going. He stole bits and pieces from the Nazis, and taught himself how to make things to distract the little ones from the horror. Stuffed toys at first, then simple carvings, then, finally, things of great beauty you would not believe could come out of a place so dark.’
So ‘the Mitty & Sarah dream was born in the camps, a spark in the darkness, but it was only in Australia that it truly came to life’.
The characters are so flawed and real. Tess has a husband, son and her work in the business but is not content. ‘She’d learned early that she could manage her mood through drugs and alcohol, and she saw no reason to ever stop. … The most peaceful times she could remember that didn’t involve a handful of tranquillisers were the endless afternoons spent working in silence alongside Arkady, tilling their abstract fortunes into neat, fertile rows’.
Unlikable Adam’s parents’ marriage had been an unhappy one; they both drank too much, and would have loud, melodramatic fights during which either would use Adam as a weapon to batter their belligerent spouse with. His happiest memories from his childhood were of playing alone in his room, or better yet, with Arkady, who would regularly stop by, shame John and Sandy into acting like adults, and whisk little Adam away to the park, or the zoo, or, best of all, Europe. … Adam had barely known John Kulakov at all, and looking at photos from his childhood he could summon no memories of the man that didn’t paint him as a short-tempered, burned-out workaholic’.
And Arkady is portrayed mostly through the eyes of Adam and Tess who both worship him. Adam tells his employees and anyone who will listen –
‘My grandfather came to this country with nothing, but now, because of his hard work and sacrifice, I have everything. Grandpa was proud of his work, of every little toy that he made. That’s why he was so successful. There’s nothing more important than hard work and sacrifice. To spend your life in service to others is the best thing a man can do with his time on Earth. When you work for a better world, when you are brave in the face of cruelty and stupidity, you earn self-respect, you earn dignity, which is the most important thing you can have in your life.’
The novel shows the Nazis to be what they were – ‘brutes and bores: cruel and cunning at best, but for the most part dull-witted, chaotic and mean. …The Third Reich was not the next age of mankind; it was a bunch of chicken farmers and thugs with delusions of grandeur, running out the clock’.
It also points out the racism and homophobia that was behind the Third Reich, that doesn’t look that different to that of today.
‘So, say you are young, say you are bright enough, but you are poor and frustrated and frightened by life. You grow up being told every day that you are poor because a Jew decided it should be so, that the Jews are after you, the Jews will take your job, the Jews will take your women. You believe it, of course, because you hear it enough times that it becomes fact, and facts become actions, become consequences. So you have a society built strong again, but its engine is hate, and like any engine it does what it is supposed to, which is run, day and night. To a machine, a Jew does not look different from a Gypsy, or a communist, or a homosexual, or a Russian. The machine runs on hate’.
It also considers the role of the third world in manufacturing today. The production of the Mitty and Sarah dolls is transferred to Jakarta, ‘where it is far cheaper, to have the toys carved and painted by hand … in a warehouse … than in the industrial powerhouses of China’ handmade, as they like to have on their labels, by ‘rows and rows of nimble-fingered women’.
This is an unflinching book about what people are prepared to do to survive, to live a life different to the one they have been given, and the consequences this can bring.