Book Review: THE TOY THIEF (2018)

Toys disappear. The beloved teddy bear, the cherished doll, and the adored car all seem to meet the same end. One day they’re with you, loved and precious, and one day they’re not. It’s easy, as adults, to downplay the tragedy of a lost toy, to neglect the implication of its disappearance. For a child, a bit of stuffing encased in formed cloth or a hunk of molded plastic is a first friend, a first love, and in some cases an all powerful protector. It’s not just the loss of the toy itself that hurts. It’s the horror of facing a world without it.

Chances are, you don’t even remember when it happened to you. The world-destroying moment when you realized it was gone, whatever it might have been. You might not even realize there was an it to even forget. It would seem silly to you know if you did remember. What horror you felt! What pain! As adults we forget the simple terrors of our youth. It’s only natural. As adults, we’ve got our own horrors to contend with; our own evils to face. How much of that, I wonder, is colored by our first tastes of loss? How much of that is affected by the realization that it was gone and nothing would ever be the same?

D.W. Gillespie mines this sandbox in THE TOY THIEF, a book that reimagines the cause of all your lost toys. A quick, simple coming-of-age tale of terror, Gillespie examines how the trauma of youth can ripple across the waters of your life, changing you and everything around you well into your adulthood.

Jack, a woman looking back on her life to The Summer That Changed Everything, recalls the trauma of her childhood in an attempt to understand who she is. It began with a lost toy, her friend Sallie’s doll, taken, she realizes, by a mysterious, shadowy figure she calls The Toy Thief. She and her brother Andy, left alone by their hardworking but aloof single father, soon find themselves embroiled in a supernatural mystery that threatens not just their lives, but their very souls.

Gillespie plumbs his simple premise with surprising depth, weaving a deceptively complex narrative of trauma into an otherwise fairly standard coming-of-age horror drama. Familiar tropes—a loving but distant parent, a dead mother, growing up poor, school troubles—are utilized well, leading the reader deeper into the shockingly heartbreaking story of pain and forgiveness of THE TOY THIEF.

Though tinged with horror, Gillespie goes light on the chills focusing instead on the loss of innocence that accompanies growing up. We’re given a monster, of course, standard though it may be. The description of the titular demon seems tailormade for Javier Botet with its skinny frame and otherworldly movement. It would be easy to roll your eyes and dismiss it as cliché, but by the end the horror feels like a misdirection.

Trauma is the true terror here, and the missing toys become a kind of short hand for the countless transgressions our psyches experience year after year until our adult-self is unrecognizable from our childhood-self. The framing device, with adult Jack writing out the story so that she, and perhaps someone else we meet later on, can better understand why she is the way she is.

Gillespie doesn’t always hit the mark, unfortunately. With either a greater or lesser length, THE TOY THIEF could’ve better explored its elements and themes, depending. A shorter, novella length story could have better highlighted the terror latent in the story, while a longer work could have mined the psychology of trauma to greater effect. Still, even with what it is, it’s never disappointing. Gillespie remains an imaginative writer who cares for his characters and writes them such that you will too.

While probably not destined to be a classic, THE TOY THIEF still manages to spin a satisfying tale that can easily be devoured in one or two sittings. Even as it trods familiar trails, Gillespie is a story-teller of no small talent, and manages to keep you engrossed through the entirety of his quick-paced tale. It certainly won’t change any lives, but it might just change the way you think about your long-lost teddy bear.

James Roberts
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