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6 march 2012

Clockwork is as intricate as its title, a literary fairy tale for all ages that explores the nature of storytelling. Philip Pullman's novella shares postmodern affinities with Steven Millhauser's similar tales of miniatures and automata; it looks forward to Brian Selznick's Invention of Hugo Cabret (not least via Leonid Gore's oblique, evocative black-and-white illustrations. And, though a (fantasy) world away from Pullman's great trilogy His Dark Materials, it shares themes with that sprawling work: the nature of evil, the secret of life, and the sense that our universe is parallel to another that tells its own stories, stories that sometimes intersect with ours.

The story of Clockwork involves a meshing of fables drawn from other genres and sources (Faust and Frankenstein are distant progenitors, as are Grimm, Hoffman, Andersen and other staples of the fairy-tale world). The setting is generic (somewhere in an old-timey Germany full of central-European, days-of-yore motifs). The story's deepest concern is with whether or not life itself is mere automation. Are people endowed with organic, contingent free will, or are they merely mechanisms that act out whatever they've been wound up to do?

Pullman's narrative depends on delicate slips from one dimension into another. Do the tales we tell take on their own reality, one that ends up impinging on ours? Meanwhile, Gore's drawings – done in ink and acrylic on gesso, with an airbrushed feel – come from the Chris Van Allsburg tradition of frozen action and off-center perspective, with their own archaic eeriness.

Love, in the end, can animate the inanimate. This is a curiously persistent theme of not-quite-for-children stories from Pinocchio through The Velveteen Rabbit, taken a step further into postmodern cyborgy thought-spaces, but kept in a resolutely old-fashioned idiom. Clockwork is the kind of story that continues to haunt long after it is run down and put back on the shelf.

Pullman, Philip. Clockwork. 1996. Illustrated by Leonid Gore. 1998. New York: Scholastic, 2006.