I have owned this book for years. Such is the length of my TBR list that I have only just managed to get to it. I’ve been admiring its beautiful cover for a long time – behold:
and I was really expecting big things of it. A homeless orphan? A maid with a painful family reality? A talented young apprentice clockmaker with an amazing gift? Tick, tick and tick.
The proof of a story is in the reading, though, and I have to admit that I struggled with ‘The Clockwork Three.’
The book is 483 pages, in my edition; a book of that length would normally take me maybe two days to get through. A book like ‘The Clockwork Three,’ which is exactly the sort of story I usually love, should mean that I never leave it down – in which case, I might even be able to get through it a bit quicker than expected. But therein lies the main problem with this book: it is way, way too long. It’s so long that I can barely imagine any child from its target audience having the patience (or strength) to stick with it, but – worse than that – it is long for no reason, narrative or otherwise. It could easily have a hundred pages lopped right out of it, and never even notice.
The story introduces us to Giuseppe, an eleven-year-old orphan who was sold by an unscrupulous uncle in his native Italy and shipped off to the New World. His ‘buyer’ was Stephano, a ‘padrone’ to a group of bedraggled young boys who work for him as buskers on the street corners of an unnamed, possibly fictional North American city in the late nineteenth century. One day, Giuseppe finds a green violin floating in the bay, and claims it for his own.
We also meet thirteen-year-old Frederick, apprentice clockmaker to the kind and paternal Master Branch. As a younger child, Frederick lived in the orphanage of the savage Mrs Treeless, from whence his freedom was purchased by Master Branch. Branch understands Frederick’s talents with machinery and wishes to help the boy reach the level of journeyman, and eventually master craftsman, in order to set up his own business. Frederick is also searching for his mother, and attempting to come to terms with his brutal past, as well as working toward his qualifications.
And then there’s Hannah, a maid in a hotel owned by the enigmatic Mister Twine. She works under the cruel Miss Wool (is anyone else getting irritated by the character names? No? Just me? All right then), and her father – once the finest stonemason in the city – lies at home helpless after suffering a stroke. Her family depends entirely on Hannah to survive.
So. Hannah needs money to help her father (after taking a silly risk which she knows will cost her the job she so desperately needs to hold on to); Giuseppe wants to earn the money to send himself back to Italy. Frederick is trying to build a clockwork man for his journeyman project, and discover what happened to his mother, and why she left him with a woman as cruel as the orphanage keeper, Mrs Treeless. Hannah uncovers the fact that a long-dead guest in the hotel she works for apparently left a large treasure there, which Miss Wool and Mister Twine have spent years looking for, and Giuseppe knows where there is a clockwork head exactly like the one Frederick is trying to build. These three hapless children eventually meet, realise that their plights intersect, and resolve to help one another. All the backstory and setting up takes about 300 pages to accomplish, and then the real adventure kicks off.
There are some great bits in this book. The clockwork man – which, through some strange mixture of chance, magic, science and alchemy – eventually begins to work, is wonderful, and woefully underused. The descriptions of Hannah’s family, and her father’s broken health and once-marvellous talent, was moving. The story about Stephano (the padrone), and the way he mistreats the boys under his care is fascinating, because it’s based on reality. I would have liked the whole book to be about that, to be truthful. Considering the book is named ‘The Clockwork Three’, clockwork plays a very minor role – it would have been better off titled ‘The Green Violin,’ in my estimation.
The book is let down by the enormous length – the enormous and needless length, I’d say – the labouring of points, the ‘slapping the reader around the head’ exposition, and the irritating ending. The secret of the treasure in the hotel made no sense. The character of Mister Twine seemed to change as the story went on. Madame Pomeroy, a rich guest in the hotel, speaks about ‘her enemies’, but they never make an appearance. Miss Wool and Mrs Treeless could have been the same character. Pullman the park ranger was pulled out when he was needed; same with Alice, the gardener/apothecary. Then, there’s the fact that I was confused by the ages of the characters; they are eleven, twelve and thirteen, the oldest being Frederick and the youngest Giuseppe, but they act and talk and think like older teenagers. The hint of romance between two of them adds a strange note to a children’s book, too. I know we’re talking about children in an earlier age, where they all had jobs and heavy responsibilities, but even still.
But the most annoying thing about this book was the fact that adults are so important in it. Surely the first rule of a children’s book is: get rid of the grownups, and let the children run the show? There is a huge reliance on adult intervention to bring this book to a conclusion, and that was a major problem for me. It’s certainly a well-written book; the author knows his way around a sentence. He uses beautiful language, and there are some well observed moments. I particularly enjoyed his use of dialogue. Having said all this, I struggled to finish the book, and I can’t imagine ever picking it up to re-read.
Funnily enough, it has picked up a huge stack of 4- and 5-star reviews on Goodreads, and seems to have done very well with other readers, so I am (perhaps) being too hard on ‘The Clockwork Three.’ Have you read it? Care to show me where I’m going wrong?