The Tin Toys Trilogy : A Virago Modern Classic, Paperback

The Tin Toys Trilogy : A Virago Modern Classic Paperback

Part of the VMC series

4.5 out of 5 (1 rating)


Born into an affluent family, Bonnie, Tor and Ula have been left to the feckless embrace of the cook and their nanny.

Their father is dead. Their glamorous mother is away entertaining the troops. When their infant brother falls ill and dies, the household disintegrates.

In Tin Toys, Ula escapes with Cook, barely out of girlhood herself, and lands at the mansion of an enigmatic matriarch.

In Unicorn Sisters, the three sisters are sent to a shabby English boarding school where the pupils are pitted against an anarchic gang of East End evacuees.

A Bubble Garden finds the girls in Ireland, where they scrape a life in a crumbling, once-grand farmhouse, while their mother and her new husband are mired in their private traumas.

A uniquely compelling and powerful coming-of-age classic.




Free Home Delivery

on all orders

Pick up orders

from local bookshops


Showing 1 - 1 of 1 reviews.

Review by

The Tin Toys Trilogy is an omnibus volume consisting of three novels: Tin Toys set during Christmas 1938, Unicorn Sisters set during autumn 1939, and A Bubble Garden set during summer 1946.In the Tin Toys Holden introduces six-year-old Ula and her family. Ula doesn't fit in. Her two older sisters 10-year old Bonnie and 8-year old Tor have graduated to the schoolroom where they are tutored by an ancient governess. Ula is stuck in the nursery where the ancient nanny is besotted with her infant brother and can barely tolerate the lively little girl. To escape pinches and punishments, she finds refuge in the kitchen where the young Irish cook Maggie teaches her to make pastries and to dance a jig. Ula's head is filled with stories of loving Irish families and cherished children, beautiful green gardens and hills, blue skies and warm weather. Missing from the household are Ula's parents. Her father died just before the birth of her brother and her mother Barbara took off to London to find herself and a career either as a singer or, failing that, a silver-screen actress. Barbara just does not like children, even her own, and had them only to please her husband. Since he had the bad manners to die, she saw no reason why she should continue to burden herself with a family. Every once in a while, she drops in to throw presents at the children. When the baby dies the week before Christmas, she manages to spare the time for his funeral and to close up the house which may be needed by the army if there is a war. She scatters her family and Ula, inexplicably, is sent to live wiith Maggie and her parents in Dublin.So begins a tragic adventure for Ula as the one adult she trusts begins to betray her. Instead of a loving home Ula is plunked down in the worst of Dublin slums. The loving family consists of two violent alcoholics and a nasty mother suffering from dementia. Maggie herself falls back into the life she tried to escape by drinking, trying to get any man interested in her, and either ignoring or yelling at the child. How Ula overcomes her circumstances is a testament to the indomitable spirit of a child.****The Unicorn Sisters switches narrators to 11 year old Bonnie. War has broken out and Barbara has enrolled her daughters in boarding school. True to her nature, Barbara chose the Cornish school because the students wore designer uniforms. That is all she noticed in the prospectus because when the girls arrive at school they have no other clothes....uniforms are worn only during class hours and girls are expected to dress for dinner and have casual clothes for the weekends. They have no money for stamps, phone calls, or toiletries (though she does give them jars of face cream for their complexions.) Barbara drops her girls at the steps and speeds away in a taxi without even considering walking through the doors of the school to inspect the rooms and meet the headmistress. Her last words are a caution to Bonnie to take care of her siblings.Bonnie and her sisters have fallen down a rabbit hole. The school is a mess. There are only three adults in residence: the very old headmistress Miss Gee, her old sister who handles the games, and an ancient gardener who doubles as cook and handyman. The excuse is that the entire staff was needed for war work. There are only fourteen pupils who are expected to clean the school, teach each other the lessons, and plant vegetables. Actually Bonnie and Ula do rather well for themselves. Bonnie makes friends with the two most important girls and Ula pleases everyone because she agrees with and is game for anything (still trying to feel wanted.) Things are fine for a few weeks until a group of East End evacuees are billeted in the half empty dormitory. They refuse to clean or dig for victory and they so insult the food that the gardener-cook storms off and never comes back. The academy girls are horrified and then in awe of 13-year-olds who smoke, dye their hair, and know a great deal about sex. As disorder turns to chaos the two groups merge. Only Tor, the quiet middle sister, senses the dangers ahead....*****A Bubble Garden is different because the narrator for nine of the fourteen chapters is an outsider. Eden or "Ed" is a demobbed soldier who comes to Ireland to manage the estate of his former commander. What he finds in the summer of 1946 is not a grand estate, but a dangerously dilapidated farmhouse, fields of weeds, and one lonely cow. In residence are the step-children of Captain Bradwell, beautiful 17 year old Bonnie, 15 year old Tor, and their 5-year-old halfbrother. ( Bradwell had wooed their mother Barbara with promises of great wealth, elegant living, exotic travel . He would love and support her children while she sang and acted and served as his hostess during the hunting season.) Bradwell himself is a permanent drunk and Mrs Bradwell has deserted the family to "save" herself at a spa hotel. Ula is hospitalized in London, a victim of polio, and does not appear until the final chapter.Ed is a hard-headed East Ender who knew that his job was hopeless. Bradwell didn't even have the funds to pay his salary. But one thing stops Ed from heading back to London. He falls hopelessly in love with Bonnie who has grown into a stunningly beautiful and vacuous young woman. Gone is the girl who protected and mothered her sisters; instead, is someone interested in nothing, existing in a vacuum. Ed longs to bring this sleeping beauty to life. So he fixes the toilet, starts to repair the leaks in the roof, cooks decent meals, tries to sober up Bradwell. When Barbara drifts back, she sees Ed as a possible lover. He sees her as a middle-aged woman with too much makeup and no talent, a woman so bent that she doesn't care if her children have food on the table even as she showers them with expensive and inappropriate gifts. There are points in the novel where Ed overcomes the obstacles and the reader senses a satisfying, if not a happy, ending is possible.But Holden is not through with her characters. In the final chapters, narrated by the quiet and sickly Tor, the past comes back to shatter the present.****The trilogy is excellent, but not just a coming of age saga. It is so much more. In a world at war, when children should be doubly protected, the sisters are let down by every single adult. Mothers who hate the thought of mothering, teachers who don't teach, fathers who are drunks. Knowledge is gained from other children. Bonnie has to have her first period explained to her by another child; sex is learned from streetwise city kids. Sometimes it is correct and sometimes it is so wrong as to be painful. That the girls survived as long as they did, given their circumstances, is a heart-wrenching story.****

Also by Ursula Holden

Also in the VMC series   |  View all