The year is 1750 and Madeleine Chastel, daughter of a Parisian brothel owner, is about to start a new job as a maid in the household of Dr Reinhart, a Swiss clockmaker. Madeleine is pleased to have an opportunity to escape from her mother’s clutches, but this particular job is not one she has chosen for herself – she has been forced to take it by the chief of police, who wants her to spy on Dr Reinhart and report back on any suspicious activities she witnesses. But although Madeleine soon becomes convinced that the police are correct and something strange is going on in the Reinhart household, she finds that she is growing fond of the clockmaker’s daughter, Veronique, and is reluctant to betray her new friend.
The novel is written from the perspectives of three different characters: Madeleine is one, Veronique is another and the third is Jeanne Poisson, better known as Madame de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV. I found the choice of narrators very effective as it means we are given insights into every level of Parisian society – the working class, the bourgeoisie or middle class, and the aristocracy. Our story takes place several decades before the French Revolution would begin, but you can see the foundations being laid here as tensions start to simmer. The various locations in which the novel is set are vividly described, with sharp contrasts between the dark, dirty streets where the poor people live in squalor and the luxury and opulence of the royal palaces of Versailles and the Louvre.
Although The Clockwork Girl is a work of fiction, it is inspired by several real historical events. First, the disappearance of children from the streets of Paris in 1750, a scandal known as ‘The Vanishing Children of Paris’. And secondly, the technological advances during the 18th century in the creation of automata – clockwork dolls, animals and other machines with moving parts. Anna Mazzola weaves both of these things into the plot and the result is an engaging and unusual novel that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.
If this book doesn’t appeal, you may prefer Anna Mazzola’s first book, The Unseeing, based on a true crime (the Edgware Road Murder) or The Story Keeper, a novel set on the Isle of Skye. I enjoyed both of them.
Thanks to Orion for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
This is book 9/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.