Book review

Clockwork or All Wound Up by Philip Pullman (1996)

It's short, but it's not that simple.

It's one of those winter evenings, when the wind is biting and the snow is thick and heavy and the best place to be is by the stove in the inn at supper time. It's a great night for a story by the fire - and Fritz the novelist is persuaded to present his latest work.

Now, we know something which the audience in the inn doesn't know. The fact is, Fritz can't think up an ending to his story. He's stuck half way. But anyway, he isn't too concerned because he thinks he might be able to dream something up on the spot.

It's a rather unpleasant little story about the local aristocrat, Prince Otto and his young son, Prince Florian, who went out together on a hunting trip. No one knew what had happened but when they returned, Prince Otto was dead, with a clockwork mechanism fitted into his chest where his heart should have been. You really need to remember that Fritz is recalling this bit of his story as a true report:

I wonder if any of you remember the extraordinary business at the palace a few years ago? They tried to hush it up, but some details came out, and a bizarre mystery it was, too.

Fritz is just getting to the bit he claims to have made up, the part played by the mysterious Dr Kalmenius, when who should walk through the inn door, but Dr Kalmenius himself!

On the threshold stood a man in a long black cloak with a loose hood like a monk's. His grey hair hung down on either side of his face: a long, narrow face with a prominent nose and jaw, and eyes that looked like burning coals in caverns of darkness.
Oh, the silence as he stepped inside! Every single person in the parlour was gaping, mouth open, eyes wide; and when they saw what the stranger was pulling behind him - a little sledge with something wrapped in canvas - more than one crossed themselves and stood up in fear.

Fritz is appalled. Why? Well, he thinks the Devil has just walked in, because he was so desperate for a good ending to his story, that he offered up his soul to the Devil if only he could come up with something good.

Is Dr Kalmenius the Devil? Philip Pullman knows a fair bit about him and he tells us all we need to know about the Doctor's part in that story about Prince Otto and Prince Florian. It's still an unpleasant little story, as you will see when you read it for yourself.

Why has Dr Kalmenius turned up at the inn at Glockenheim? Was he summoned by Fritz, desperately searching for a good ending to his story? If so, why doesn't he take Fritz's soul? Maybe he does, I'm not sure about that. Or has Dr Kalmenius come especially to tempt poor Karl, the clockmaker's apprentice?

Karl is easy prey. He's been an idle apprentice and now has nothing to show for all his years with his master. He faces public humiliation in the morning when the town turns out to see his contribution to their great clock with its many figures. Nothing will be there because Karl has done nothing. So Karl is pretty desperate to have that figure underneath the canvas on Dr Kalmenius' sledge. What is Dr Kalmenius' price? You'll have to read the book.

It's a very moral story, because if Karl and Fritz can sell their souls, Gretl, the charming little barmaid, is able to both give her heart away to Prince Florian, and keep it at the same time. Which only goes to show that if there is evil in this world, there is goodness too.

It is a short story, but it isn't quick to read. The big story is made up of lots of little threads. So you will have to concentrate quite hard to see where each thread of the story fits in. A bit like a puzzle. I hope you enjoy it.

What can I read next?

Philip Pullman writes lovely stories for younger readers. If you enjoy Clockwork, I think you might also like:

If it's the melodrama which you really enjoy in Clockwork, I recommend Alan Temperley's books. Have a look at:

Or you might like to look at Stephen Elboz:

If it is the way the separate stories join up in Clockwork, which interests you, you might like to look at this one by Louis Sachar:

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