The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

Author: Natasha Pulley

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2015

I read it: January 2018

the watchmaker of filigree street

When my wife was sick at the end of November, I brought her a stack of hardcovers from the library. I had a good sense of what she might like, with most of the books taking place in England and featuring some level of mystery. (She ended up picking the one book that didn’t fit this description. What can you do?)

Of the five, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street piqued my personal interest the most, so I kept it around and wedged it into my reading schedule. The cover does a lot of heavy lifting: the attractive design features an octopus, the titular watch, bombs, and fireworks. There’s a hole where the watch shows through, and when you turn the cover the item is overlaid on a map of Victorian London. It’s lovely.

The story opens with political intrigue. Thaniel is a competent but lowly government worker who almost gets blown up in a major bomb plot from a radical group. Almost blown up, because a mysterious watch that fell into his lap warned him to get outside just in time. This device eventually leads him to Mori, a mysterious Japanese watchmaker who speaks impeccable English and is always three steps ahead of everyone else.

Thaniel befriends Mori and decides to become his roommate, while doubling as a government informant who is supposed to be keeping tabs on his friend because Mori is the prime suspect in the bombing. Mori also has a clockwork octopus, one of the coolest additions to the book. It’s emphasized many times that the mechanical creature runs on random gears, and therefore is delightfully unpredictable in its actions.

Another character who enters partway through is Grace, an unconventional scientist who endeavors to pin down the source of “ether,” the maybe-real substance that invisible things such as thoughts and intentions move through. She is of the notion that “science had to have some mystery, otherwise everyone would find out how simple it was.” This seems to be Natasha Pulley’s working thesis as well; the author uses this area of pseudoscience to introduce a bit of fantastical speculation into a work that would otherwise stay firmly in historical fiction territory.

Mori, it turns out, can see events in the future. Or he can at least see possible events, with hunches about which ones may be more likely. It’s actually unclear how much or little of the details he really knows. Randomness throws him off, such as the outcome of a dice roll or what his octopus gets up to on any given day.

The book has a lot of neat alleyways to explore, although partway through I struggled to find the thread that made me excited to keep reading. Perhaps it was the distance I felt between me and the particular places and times. Japan and England in modern day feel alien enough, let alone over a century and a half ago. Often I felt myself stumbling over sentences that didn’t quite connect. Sometimes I figured it was an English phrase, like “turned side on,” that I was simply unfamiliar with. In other cases it was more detrimental, as in the sentence “War was punching the clock instead of looking at the broken mechanisms.” Is “punching the clock” not a colloquialism in British English? Even so, wouldn’t “smashing the clock” or “destroying the clock” work just as well?

In broader contexts, sometimes an entire sentence that went over my head. Take this one: “Ito wondered how many generations of knights it took to produce one who came with a guarantee that even a Tokyo rickshawman could spot good breeding and get out of its way.” I think this is trying to say something about the strict lineages of knights giving them physical characteristics that lower class people would recognize in the street. But I had to read it many times to puzzle out that conclusion. Even broader than that, the couple chapters that feature Ito as the narrator are confusing at best. He’s a minor character who doesn’t seem to earn the spot, and I kept thinking his perspective was actually Mori’s.

Toward the end of the novel, Pulley does an admirable job of trying to ratchet up the suspense and bring many threads together. There’s a wedding, another bomb plot, a romantic reveal I didn’t see coming, and an even more fantastical detail involving little glass vials that can temporarily change the weather itself. This last piece felt a bit shoehorned and opened up the speculative angle a bit too widely—how many impossible things is the reader willing to believe in a book that doesn’t otherwise read as fantasy or magical realism?

Regardless of genre, some of the largest plot questions remain for me. Why did Grace actually do what she did in those final chapters? Did I read her motivations entirely backward? And the same goes for Thaniel: what does he gain by not sticking with a previous plan he made? At one point a character muses, “I suppose numbers, being immutable, are comforting when one feels one isn’t quite in control of things. Three will always be three.” I’m left wondering how in control of things the author was throughout. Maybe I just fell off the wavelength and never quite climbed back on. I can’t figure out if three stayed three and the book wrapped up perfectly, or if intentional ambiguity was meant to hint at a much larger tapestry. In the end, I wish I liked the story as much as the cover art.

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