Three youngsters become involved in each other’s affairs by accident and help each other out in their overlapping problems. Giuseppe, hoping to escape from his life as a busker controlled by the cruel Stephano, finds comfort in the Old Rock Church and its pastor, Reverend Grey. He comes across a special violin and hides it in the churchyard along with the extra money he earns by playing it. Betrayed by one of the younger boys, he goes on the run from Stephano, turning to Hannah and Frederick for help.
Hannah’s father, a master-mason, has suffered a stroke before the story begins. Hannah works as a hotel maid to earn enough to keep the family while her mother cares for her husband and two younger daughters. Hannah is taken under the wing of a rich hotel guest, Madame Pomeroy, a larger-than-life character who appears also to be a medium. Certainly she describes herself as one who communicates with the dead, attempts to tell Hannah’s fortune with a pack of cards, and is observed later in a séance channelling a dead spirit. In desperate need for money, Hannah is caught stealing a diamond necklace.
Frederick is in a better situation, apprenticed to a kindly master, but works secretly on a clockwork automaton in the hope that it will win him his journeymanship. When his master is commissioned to make a clockwork device by Hannah’s rich protectress, he finds himself attracted to the young girl and together they help Giuseppe when he is on the run.
The characters really pull the book along. While several of the supporting characters are more or less stereotypes — the greedy and vicious workhouse owner; the woodwise old woman with her herbs and samples; the Fagin-like Stephano — the three main characters, children on the verge of adulthood, are more like archetypes. Italian Giuseppe is the artist, sensitive and passionate, desperate to return home to his family in the Italian hills. Germanic Frederick is the thinker and inventor, always wanting to make things work, kind but absent-minded when absorbed in a project. And Hannah is the woman, working to keep her family together, prepared to take any risk for those she loves.
The story opens with Giuseppe finding the violin when beachcombing after a wreck, but its origin and powers remains unresolved at the end. It has an uncanny ability to get through to people’s feelings and to set them dancing. Frederick’s automaton is a clockwork man, not unlike that in The Invention of Hugo Cabret with one difference: when Hannah places in its chest a piece of golem clay, it acquires a life of its own. In fact, only the body is of Frederick’s making; the head is the fabled head said to have belonged to Albertus Magnus and to answer any question.
Which bring us to the question of the thefts carried out by the youngsters. Hannah and Frederick both steal things, Hannah out of desperation, Frederick more deliberately, driven by his desire to complete his automaton. Since, by and large, the children are presented as generous, hard-working, kind, friendly and otherwise fairly virtuous, this aspect of the story is a slightly surprising departure. Ironically, the only one of the youngsters who might have a claim to steal simply to feed himself is Giuseppe. And he doesn’t.
The story does end up a little cluttered, possibly because the author couldn’t bear to miss out any of his good ideas. True, additional details and backstories can add depth to a book. But somehow, the nonessential elements here leave the reader with the impression of a scattering of interesting images across the foreground of the story rather than an increased depth of field. In summary: engaging characters bring the story to life within an interesting, if slightly cluttered, world. I’d certainly pick up anything else this author produces in the future.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer living in London. He is also the editor of goodtoread.org.