One of the telegraphs was clicking.
[Thaniel] leaned in, only curious at first, until he saw it was the machine for Great Scotland Yard and lurched to catch the end of the transcript paper. It almost always scrunched itself up after three inches. It creaked as it threatened to crush the paper, but yielded as he pulled. The newest dots and dashes of code came out shakily, in an old man’s handwriting.
Fenians — left me a note promising that —
The rest was still ticking through the clockwork, making little skittering stars through the gloomy room. He recognised the style of the operator before long. Superintendent Williamson coded in the same hesitant way in which he spoke. As it came through, the rest of the message was jerky and full of pauses.
— they will detonate bombs in all p– ublic buildings on– May 30, 1884. Six months from today. Williamson.
Thaniel is a telegraph operator at the Home Office, working long shifts to make ends meet and sending most of his money to support his widowed sister and her two sons. Aside from a case of synaesthesia that means he sees sound as colour, there isn’t much to distinguish him from the crowd of lowly Whitehall clerks — until the day he comes home to find his front door unlocked and a mysterious, beautiful watch left as an anonymous gift. When the same watch saves him from the blast radius of an Irish bomb, police attention — and Thaniel’s — naturally turns to Keita Mori, the Japanese watchmaker.
Grace Carrow is studying physics at Oxford, but her undergraduate years are drawing to a close and her father wants to see her married off before she can embarass him further. For Grace, marriage holds only one appeal: her aunt has left her a house and money as dowry, there to be unlocked if she can only find a man who will tolerate her continued experiments. When she bumps into Thaniel at a society ball, it doesn’t take them long to identify a mutually beneficial arrangement.
Meanwhile, Thaniel has taken a room in the watchmaker’s house, ostensibly to keep an eye on him for the police, but against his better judgement the two men are becoming good friends. As they grow closer, Mori trusts Thaniel with his deepest secret: he can ‘remember’ the future, with likely futures standing out as clearer memories, and once-remembered possibilities fading from his mind as they pass whatever decision point renders them impossible. Thaniel is a practical man so he’s skeptical at first, but it’s Grace who devises an experiment to test his claims once and for all.
Once they are both convinced of his authenticity, though, Grace and Thaniel diverge sharply on the question of what should be done about it. Grace sees Mori’s ability to predict and manipulate the future as an implicit threat, while Thaniel (perhaps because of his synaesthesia) is more sympathetic to a man struggling under the weight of a poorly-understood talent. Pulley does an exceptional job of showing both sides, here. We don’t see Mori’s perspective directly, but we are shown over and over his acts of kindness towards Thaniel; however, Grace’s logic is impeccable, and her argument that every kindness is all part of Mori’s manipulative act is (much like solipsism) impossible to disprove. Even after the final page, I still can’t be certain which of them is right, although I know what I want to be true.
I spent much of the first half of this book wondering what genre I was in. The bomb and the watch are mysterious, but our main characters are only indirectly involved in the subsequent investigations. There are steampunk elements, but for the first few chapters the clockwork keeps sensibly out of the way in watches and telegraph machines. The fantasy aspect of Mori’s future-memory is unusual, and wonderfully developed, but it takes a while to become evident. There’s an understated and beautiful romance, but it obeys few conventions of that genre. Whatever it is, though, it all adds up to something that absolutely works. Smart, funny, sweet, and ambiguous: this is one of the best books I’ve read this year, or ever.
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is published next week, and is currently available for preorder. It is (unbelievably) Natasha Pulley’s debut novel.