SHADES: shades of truth, shades of virtue, shades of evil – shades in all their incarnations run as a central theme through The Toymaker.
Juxtaposing the horrors of World War II’s Auschwitz death camp with matter-of-fact 21st-century consumerism in outer Melbourne, novelist Liam Pieper weaves together the experiences of contemporary toy manufacturer Adam and his grandfather, Holocaust survivor Arkady.
A Russian medical student interned in Czechoslovakia for being homosexual, Arkady is singled out soon after his arrival at Auschwitz to assist in SS physician Josef Mengele’s “scientific research” program. There, he both suffers and inflicts previously unimaginable cruelty, compromising his personal integrity and ethics in order to stay alive. At the same time, he reprises a craft learned back home in Russia: the craft of handcarving wooden toys.
More than 70 years later Adam continues the Kulakov family tradition – a tradition not only of toymaking but also of navigating somewhat clumsily around inconvenient personal and business principles. A spontaneous vow to be “the kind of quick-thinking alpha male who can seduce strange women when the opportunity arises, but doesn’t” is quickly abandoned; Adam pursues human and commercial conquests with equal zeal.
This novel might have the word “toy” in its title but that is definitely where any association with lightness and frivolity ends. Hauntingly dark and enthralling, Pieper’s storytelling spans the gamut of situations guaranteed to provoke extreme emotions, switching deftly between marital infidelity and third-world labour exploitation as subject matter, with workers in one scene sacrificed to a modern-day inferno that echoes the horror of the gruesome Auschwitz furnaces.
In The Toymaker – his first novel and third book – Pieper illustrates perfectly that no single person is ever entirely either good or bad – that within every human being lies a confusion of positive and negative behaviours, beliefs and traits.