The Clockwork Girl by Anna Mazzola

Paris, 1750. In the midst of winter, as birds fall frozen from the sky, a new maid arrives at the home of a celebrated clockmaker and his clever, unworldly daughter. But rumours are stirring that Reinhart’s uncanny mechanical creations – bejewelled birds, silver spiders – are more than mere automata. That they might defy the laws of nature, perhaps even at the expense of the living…

But Madeleine is hiding a dark past, and a dangerous purpose – to discover the truth of the clockmaker’s experiments and record his every move, in exchange for her own chance of freedom.

Meanwhile, in the streets, children are quietly disappearing – and Madeleine comes to fear that she has stumbled upon a greater conspiracy. One which might reach to the heart of Versailles…

Thoughts

Set in Paris in 1750, The Clockwork Girl follows the story of Madeleine, a young woman raised in a brothel, who is blackmailed into taking a position as a lady’s maid to seventeen-year-old Veronique Reinhart. Newly returned from a convent, Veronique is the daughter of Dr. Max Reinhart, a clockmaker with an interest in anatomy, who uses his knowledge to create lifelike automaton animals. Max’s creations are so real, others have grown suspicious he is using the black arts and Madeleine’s purpose in the house is to spy on him. As soon as she arrives though, Madeleine feels ill at ease and is sure she is being watched. Yet, Madeleine’s investigations reveal nothing untoward and the police are less than pleased by her lack of reports.

As Madeleine settles into her new role, she begins to form a bond with the other occupants: Joseph, a former slave, who is Reinhart’s valet and Edme, the cook, who has a heart of gold. Both servants are aware something is not quite right with Reinhart but they excuse it as eccentric behaviour but Madeleine is not so sure. Madeleine also begins to build a relationship with Veronique who initially comes across as a naive young girl but Madeleine soon realises she has hidden depths. Veronique has always been encouraged to share in her father’s interests and her apprenticeship begins for real when she is brought home from the convent. However, Veronique soon realises she is limited by her gender and is particularly annoyed when she is not allowed to participate in the creation of an important commission for the king.

As well as the narratives from Madeleine and Veronique, we are also given the point of view of Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour, one of the most influential members of the French court. However, Jeanne is fighting to retain her position as maîtresse-en-titre as her frequent bouts of ill health are contributing to the growing distance between her and Louis XV. Enchanted by Reinhart’s creations, Jeanne brings him to the attention of the king and is delighted when Reinhart is appointed as the royal clockmaker. However, things take a dark turn when the king and Reinhart become immersed in a secretive new project that horrifies the court. While the three women seem to have very little in common, their fates are soon intertwined as they suffer at the hands of the men in their lives.

The Clockwork Girl also shows the distinctions between the different classes of French society with the poorest living in squalid conditions in the dirty streets of Paris while the bourgeoisie live in the apparent luxury of the Louvre and Versailles. While Paris may have been the second largest city in Europe in the eighteenth century, Mazzola portrays it as a stinking cesspit where the poor are largely disregarded and their resentment is seething beneath the surface. The tensions erupt when it becomes clear children are disappearing from Paris and dangerous rumours begin to spread that their blood is being used to “cure a leprous prince”. Mazzola reveals at the end of the novel that this part of the story is true.

When Reinhart is appointed the official royal clockmaker, his household moves into lodgings within the Louvre which is described as a shabby and haphazard accommodation full of craftsmen, artists and other individuals who have been granted royal favour. The Louvre proves to be a stepping stone to the Palace of Versailles which is portrayed in all its opulent glory but also with its distinctive odour of urine. The gilded opulence contrasting with the perverted behaviour and the vile smells are further indications there is something rotten at the core of France. The different settings are vividly described by Mazzola who doesn’t shy away from the baseness of human nature and it also underscores the problems that will eventually lead to the French Revolution in a few decades.

The Clockwork Girl is an excellent gothic novel which has a firm grounding in history and its various elements all work well together. However, the pace was inconsistent with the first half being quite slow and the latter chapters more rushed. There were also a lot of errors on the Kindle version I was reading with the wrong characters names being used in certain paragraphs which was annoying.

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