The Toymaker by Liam Pieper
From the opening pages of Liam Pieper’s The Toymaker, the reader is left with no doubt as to what kind of man Adam Kulakov is. The head of a successful toymaking company inherited from his Holocaust-surviving grandfather Arkady, Adam is obsessed with his grandfather’s legacy, despite owing most of the company’s success to the work of his long-suffering wife Tess. When Adam’s recklessness and hubris land him in a web of blackmail, his attempts to find a way out ultimately threaten his family’s livelihood and legacy.
Meanwhile, Adam’s narrative is interspersed with flashbacks to Arkady’s imprisonment in Auschwitz where, forced to assist a Nazi doctor in his ghoulish experiments on children, he secretly makes them toys to ease their suffering as best he can. As present-day Arkady’s health fades, these flashbacks show the extent of the younger man’s suffering and quest to survive.
Tackling the Holocaust in a first novel is no mean feat, but Pieper’s writing is assured, capable and dramatic without being showy. Adam is a fascinating protagonist – a truly despicable character who truly believes himself to be a good man. Indeed, Pieper’s novel is woven through with the question of what it is to be a good man, subtly challenging traditional ideas of masculinity. The juxtaposition between Adam and Tess’s present-day storyline and Arkady’s experience in Auschwitz initially comes across as a device to indict Adam, his recklessness and arrogance starkly contrasted with that of his grandfather – and it does that well – but as the novel draws to a close and Pieper reveals his narrative hand, a shocking twist gives The Toymaker an entirely new dimension, one that asks the reader to think long and hard about the price of secrets, and what morality really means. Read it once, then read it again.
Alan Vaarwerk is the editorial assistant for Readings Monthly.