The Clockwork Girl by Anna Mazzola

Publisher: Orion Publication Date: March 2022

I’d been excited to read Anna Mazzola’s new novel ‘The Clockwork Girl.’ I had read lots of positive reviews and felt it was a book most suited to these darkening evenings of winter. I was incredibly fortunate to receive an ARC from Netgalley and so inevitably this book went to the top of my reading pile.

Although a successful and established writer, this was the first novel I had read by Anna Mazzola. Very quickly I was immersed in the world of 17th Century Paris. This is a city that is very different to the romanticised version of it we may have in our minds. This was a Paris that is divided and poverty stricken, a Paris that Mazzola brings to the fore in a very visceral way, a city that is a character itself ever present and watchful. As Madeline, our central protagonist and sex worker at her mother’s brothel, states the bits of Paris she knew ‘were the bits Paris kept buttoned’. It feels a dangerous and cutthroat place, ‘In Paris if you couldn’t earn your bread then your bones might be made of glass, for others seemed to look right through you.’ There is so much desperation around the characters which effectively works to create a claustrophobic and unsettling atmosphere throughout the text. It felt, at times, difficult to put down as I was totally immersed in the experience of reading.

Madeline is quickly embroiled in a plot that sees her temporarily moved from the brothel to become a maid at the local clock maker, Dr. Reinhart’s home. There are rumours round the city that Reinhart is delving into unseemly activities and so he needs to be monitored. Madeline is forced to spy on the unusual goings on and report back to the chief of police, an unsavoury brute of a character who has terrorised the women at the brothel and is very much out for what he can get. Here, however things take an unexpected turn and Madeline forms a close bond with Reinhart’s daughter, a young girl who is equally brilliant at science as her father and is passionate about the automatons they create.

I have recently finished reading ‘The Flames’ by Sophie Haydock which foregrounds female characters that are restricted and confined by contemporary societal values towards femininity and female behaviour. I felt Mazzola explored similar issues as all the female protagonists were trapped in some way, forced by men to play certain roles. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the character of Jeanne, modelled on French King Louis XV’s mistress Jeanne Becu. Despite living a life of privilege Jeanne has to be equally as canny to survive the prejudices and maliciousness that pervade the many rooms of Versailles. The opulence and decadence that are described by the writer are made to seem superficial and gaudy when described in juxtaposition with the extreme poverty a few mere miles away.

The setting of Versailles felt quite gothic, the outer layer of the palace seemed diamond encrusted but underneath both literally and figuratively the place was rotting and in a state of decay. The lengthy descriptions were effectively visceral and evocative. It felt thoroughly convincing whilst feeling uncomfortably repellent which was indicative of a well-researched text. Spending time with each of the female narrators served to create an exciting and suspenseful pace to the novel which resulted in a satisfying creepy climactic twist. An atmospheric and unsettling book which bought to the fore the complexities and nuances of 17th Century Paris.

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