Clockwork: A Review

Clockwork (1995) by Philip Pullman (find it on Bookshop)

Clockwork by Phillip PullmanI have a semi-intense love-hate relationship with Philip Pullman (and perhaps also with hyphens, but that’s another matter). I used to like Pullman unconditionally, reading anything he had written. Then I read The Shadow in the North (the second installment in the Sally Lockheart trilogy) and was burned by the ending. It literally hurt. Philip Pullman made me cry. But I was willing to let it slide because I was also in the midst of His Dark Materials and felt compelled to finish–my mistake. The Amber Spyglass also left me severely burned, and crying again.

Before all of that happened, Pullman wrote some shorter, happier works. I can’t recapture my early excitement about Pullman, especially after reading about his “Frederick must die” rule, but I can almost appreciate his works without remembering the grief he caused me.

Clockwork (1995) is a novella length story. At 107 pages, the narrative is too short to include any deaths of beloved characters or annoyingly impossible loves. Pettiness aside, I have to say that’s a relief.

The story is set in a German town once upon a time when time still ran according to clockwork timepieces–none of that electronic nonsense. Karl, the clockmaker’s apprentice, is sulking in the local pub while his friend Fritz prepares to tell the town his newest story.

Things begin to go wrong when a mysterious visitor arrives at the pub after Fritz has wound up his story but before he has a chance to wind it down again. That’s well and good for readers but not so good for the characters, especially Karl and Gretl, the daughter of the pub’s owner.

Clockwork is grim only in the way a children’s book can be. There is death and gore and talk of devils taking souls, but none of that is conceptualized in a way that actually touches readers. It’s sort of like they way I was able to watch The Nightmare Before Christmas as a girl without being creeped out even though I don’t understand how that is possible when I watch it now.

The narrative reads very much like a story. Not like a book, but like an actual story told in the oral tradition. This technique is not often used outside of the realm of fairy tales, but Pullman works the style aptly. It works especially well with the edition I read which includes black and white illustrations by Leonid Gore. The illustrations kind of suggest what Edward Gorey would have drawn if he didn’t work in such outline oriented ways for anyone who was wondering.

This novella (I can’t bring myself to call it a novel) also received tons of accolades in the 1990s when it came out. It was winner of the 1997 Silver Medal Smarties Prize, A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year for 1998, and a NYPL Best Book of the Year also for 1998. I mostly agree with this praise. The story is a little thin on character development, but given its length that’s to be expected. Considering it in terms of being a tiny book, the story is really tight and well-put-together.

For more about the “Frederick Must Die” Rule see also: