The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow is the debut novel of Katherine Woodfine, whose award-winning blog (focusing largely on children’s books) and job (working with Booktrust, alongside the UK Children’s Laureate) show her to be amply qualified to write a book like this one. It is a gentle, old-fashioned romp (all things I love!) through Edwardian London, following the adventures of a young lady named Sophie Taylor, who has recently gained employment in the Millinery Department of the soon-to-be-opened Sinclair’s Department Store in Piccadiilly. Period detail drips from every page, helped marvellously by the fantastic illustrations by Julia Sarda. I particularly loved the ones at the beginning of each new section, showing a fashionable young lady of the age wearing the last word in fashionable hats – which, of course, fits right in with Sophie’s new job.
And then there’s this stunning cover.
We first meet Sophie, who is fourteen, as she makes her way to Sinclair’s for a day’s training in advance of the shop’s grand opening. Sinclair’s is a store in the vein of Selfridges; large and opulent, situated over several floors, selling only the best of everything, and offering its clients a bit of luxury. It is owned by an American millionaire (again, as Selfridge’s was, back in the day) and despite being entirely fictional, it is described and written so well that the shop itself becomes another character in the story. I felt like I knew its twists and turns, its landings and corridors and polished wooden banisters, as well as I knew any of the people in this tale. Sophie immediately runs up against Edith, another shopgirl, who takes against her because of Sophie’s posh background. Sophie’s father fought in the Boer War, and they once had a large and impressive home. But through misfortune, bad timing, bad luck and a lack of foresight (none of which is her own fault), Sophie has been left alone and adrift in the world, with nothing of her previous life but a framed photo of her dashing father and a jug from her old bedroom. She has no choice but to start working and to take a room in a boarding house, and – as is entirely appropriate, given the book’s historical setting – she dives into these huge challenges with a sense of doing her duty, keeping an admirable (if extremely poignant) focus on the future and on where her life is taking her, as opposed to what she has lost.
She makes friends with Billy, a young man who works in the stables, and she also meets the slightly older and very exotic Lil, one of Mr Sinclair’s ‘girls’, whose job it is to model the merchandise and generally hang around looking beautiful. Lil is described regularly as being traffic-stoppingly stunning, but she somehow manages to be an interesting character on top of that, with plenty of intelligence and gumption of her own, and that was fantastic. Initially I thought her story arc would develop entirely differently, and I’m glad things didn’t go the way I’d expected. There’s also Joe, a runaway rag-tag street urchin on the wrong side of a vicious gang, who gets roped up in the central mystery of the book.
For, indeed. A mystery is afoot.
Sinclair’s grand opening is mere hours away, and an exhibition is planned to mark it, full of wonders and marvels. Central to the display is the marvellous Clockwork Sparrow itself, which is made of gold and precious jewels, and which plays a different melody every time it is wound. Sophie catches sight of it one evening as she leaves work, and is spotted in its vicinity by one of the senior shop staff. When the Sparrow goes missing later that night, suspicion immediately falls upon her, and as the book continues the net tightens around her. This is despite the fact, of course, that she’s entirely innocent – but who did take the Sparrow, and why? And what possible reason could they have for wanting to deflect suspicion on to Sophie?
The police aren’t interested in Sophie’s explanations or in her attempts to prove her innocence, and so it’s up to her – along with Lil, Billy and the shadowy Joe – to prove that there’s an answer to the mystery, and one which goes much further than mere greed. For the secret of the Sparrow is something far more important than its monetary value, and the reasons for its disappearance are much more important and dangerous than they first appear.
This is a clever, complex and interesting book, which drew me in from the first page. It is atmospheric and evocative and real, and I enjoyed all the characters, particularly anxious Billy who just wants to be left alone to read his boys’ own magazines and pretend to be a hero, and the sparky Lil who uses her own particular set of skills to get herself out of any situation. I loved its use of historical detail, its awareness of its setting, and its pacing, which gets tauter and more tense as the mystery draws to its conclusion. It was a quick read, for me, but it made me smile as it carried me along, and that’s the best recommendation I can give. It’s a great story, masterfully told, smoothly written and perfectly plotted. I look forward to the next book from its talented author.