The three novels which make up Ursula Holden’s ‘Tin Toys Trilogy’ have been reprinted in a lovely edition by Virago. Holden, sadly a relatively forgotten author in the twenty first century, is heralded on its cover by fellow Virago published Molly Keane, who states that the ‘Tin Toys Trilogy’ is ‘extraordinarily good’. Holden has been compared to both Beryl Bainbridge and Muriel Spark, and this alone makes her a perfect candidate for the Virago list.
Lisa Allardice, the author of the book’s introduction, tells us that the three sisters whom all three novels focus upon are rather different in their temperaments: ‘the eldest beautiful and mild-mannered, the middle grave and thoughtful, the youngest innocent and watchful’. It is, essentially, a coming of age trilogy, in which we see these three sisters grow and mature despite the adversity which surrounds them. ‘It is the archetypal fairy-tale set up,’ Allardice tells us, ‘three sisters and a wicked mother – and as in all fairy tales there is much darkness, randomness and cruelty’. Allardice’s introduction is very informative, but be warned – it does throw up a couple of spoilers from time to time.
The novels are set before, during and after the Second World War, and each is told from the perspective of or with its focus upon a certain sister. The first, Tin Toys, is told by lonely Ula, the youngest, Unicorn Sisters takes the perspective of the eldest, Bonnie, and The Bubble Garden is partially narrated by middle sister Tor.
In Tin Toys, the girls’ baby brother, Bruno, dies of exposure just weeks after his birth, and Ula is sent to Ireland with the family’s cook as a result. Ula is six years old when Tin Toys begins and, as one might expect, childish elements of life shine through in her story. She tells the reader, in retrospect, how she so enjoyed the dance classes of this troubled time: ‘I could be certain of happiness on Saturday mornings because of my dancing class… I hopped to Miss Dance’s playing and forgot that I had two older sisters and an awful brother wrapped in a shawl’. Ula’s narrative voice is engaging from the outset, and is filled throughout with a sense of childlike joy and hope. When meeting a new, mysterious girl named Lucy at her aforementioned class, she states: ‘We hadn’t spoken to each other but I thought she was spellbinding. I had never seen anyone touch their nose with their tongue’.
At home, Ula’s life is troubled. Following the death of their father and with a largely absent mother who flits in as and when she wishes, the girls are separated from one another, and Ula is largely brought up by her nurse. ‘I longed to be friends with my sisters,’ Ula tells us, ‘to share their sisterly world, but they neither needed nor wanted me’. Her only comfort in the dark world in which she inhabits is the kindly Irish cook, Maggie, who understands her situation: ‘Is it any wonder Ula likes it downstairs with me. She gets a laugh and a cuddle down here’. A sense of pity is struck for our protagonist at the first.
The entire trilogy, in fact, is filled with sadness – the absence of parents, the death of a sibling whom none of the sisters really knew, bullying, unfairness and growing understanding of their plight. Perhaps the saddest element of all is their mother’s lack of compassion: ‘She disliked children, she’d had them for him [her husband]. The boy was born, she’d not cared… She had accommodated three lost souls who cared for her children [in the guise of a governess, cook and nurse]. She had time now for herself’. Later on, after baby Bruno’s death, their mother returns to the house: ‘She had come for some clothes, she repeated. She had enrolled at a school of acting. Three children in Sussex wouldn’t prevent her… Nothing would stop her career’.
Much is battled against in Tin Toys, and the case is similar in Unicorn Sisters, in which the sisters are packed off to a second rate boarding school ‘out of reach of Hitler’s bombs… Mamma was relieved to be getting rid of us so conveniently. War was declared. We must go at once’. Mamma happily goes off to entertain the troops, sending the girls to boarding school a day early in the hope of getting rid of them. Here, they face challenges of monumental importance to such young girls, and are forced to grow up quite against their will. Again, in the last novel of the trilogy, A Bubble Garden the girls move over to Ireland with their mother and her new husband, a situation which throws up problems of its own.
With regard to the novels themselves, the first half of Tin Toys is incredibly strong, but it does seem to lose momentum somewhere towards the novel, and the situations which Holden introduces are far too convenient to be believed. Unicorn Sisters, Bonnie’s tale, is the strongest of the trilogy, and is a difficult book to put down. Bonnie’s narrative voice is the strongest of the three, and her maturity adds to the more wonderful elements of the book. A Bubble Garden is told partly from the perspective of Tor, along with a third person narrative perspective. As a novel, it is by far the weakest of the three, and does end on rather a tragic note. There seems to be far too much sadness crammed into its pages, and comes across as rather a pitiful and depressing end to the trilogy on the whole.
The characters in all three novels are not constant, and they are continually changing as a result of the circumstances which they find themselves in. Holden has clearly put a lot of thought into how her characters act and react in a whole host of different situations, and she seems to know their minds incredibly well. Although they seem realistic, very few of the characters are likeable. If you want a cheerful read, this is certainly not the book for you, but if you want to see the human psyche masterfully created in all its many guises, then this is perfect reading material.