The Doll Factory By Elizabeth Macneal – A Review

Publisher: Picador

Publication Date: 2nd May 2019

The Doll Factory is set in London in the 1850’s, a time when curiosities and collecting was rife. To be honest this brief nugget of detail was all I needed to know. If you know me at all you will be well aware that Victorian London is my favourite historical time period and setting. Add to this the fact that the publicity information that came with this book said I was in for a story surrounding strange collections, obsession, possession (and a doll shop owned by a laudanum quaffing tyrant!) and I was in!

The Doll Factory tells the story of Iris a young woman working with her twin sister Rose in Salter’s Doll Emporium. She is tasked with the job of painting the delicate porcelain heads of the dolls, whilst Rose sews the finishing intricate touches to the dolls clothing. A local urchin boy Albie sews the rough shapes of the clothing to earn himself some money and the finer detail is left to the girls.

However, Iris dreams of bigger things and aspires to be a painter, convinced she is not meant to merely sit wasting her days painting the inanimate faces of dolls.  Rose on the other hand has problems of her own, after an illness she is left disfigured and bitter about Iris’s good looks, although Iris does not share her sister’s view of her appearance as she has a twisted clavicle.  A deformity which has plagued her and diminished her self esteem ever since she was born.  The sisters pass their days side by side in the doll shop with an air of bitterness hanging over them both.

Then we have Silas, a taxidermist and collector of sorts.  A man who procures the corpses of animals with the help of young Albie, stuffs them and mounts them in interesting compositions.  He also provides pre-raphelite artists with specimens for them to use in their paintings.  Silas, like Iris has dreams of bigger things.  He wants to be known for having found that one interesting, eye catchingly curious specimen that nobody else has been able to get their hands on. Perhaps a specimen with an interesting skeletal deformity…..

Iris and Silas meet quite unexpectedly as the preparations for the great exhibition are underway.  Both connected as they are through young Albie, who is out with Iris at the time of the meeting.  From that first instance Silas is bewitched by Iris, with her long fiery red hair and distinct beauty. Iris on the other hand pays barely any mind to Silas at all and instantly forgets the meeting.

Going forward Silas cannot get Iris out of his mind and when one of the painters Louis Frost needs to call in a favour from Silas, Silas suggests that he knows of a girl who would be perfect to sit for one of frosts paintings….

Louis approaches Iris to model for a painting he is hoping to have accepted and displayed at the Great Exhibition, Iris at first is against the idea, however she strikes a deal with Louis that she will indeed sit for him if he teaches her more about painting and helps her hone her own skills. As their relationship begins to develop, Silas becomes ever more obsessed with Iris.  But just how far will this obsession reach and at what price?

I have read quite a few great pieces of historical fiction of late and The Doll Factory is certainly one of them! Expertly crafted by Elizabeth Macneal, we have a dark and twisty story which will sweep you up and fully immerse you in Victorian London.  I have said this before but I will say it again, I have so much admiration for authors who write historical fiction, particularly a debut novel.  The research and attention to detail that goes into this genre just astounds me.  On top of this, the talent to be able to create an atmospheric read is quite remarkable and The Doll Factory has atmosphere in spades!

This is a dark rich and vivid, disturbing study of obsession and possession and what that means.  Themes of ambition and the way women are viewed as a lesser being, and at times dolls and posessions to be acquired and owned are also explored in detail. The pacing is perfect, a slow and sinister build up to an absolutely tense and gripping denouement. I read the latter section with my heart in my mouth, almost wanting to look away but desperate to read on.

The characters are all fully rounded and be they slightly flawed or down right dark they are all hugely memorable and compelling.

The Doll Factory is a book that I know for certain I will be pressing into the hands of lots a people.  It is a stunning debut and Elizabeth Macneal deserves great acclaim for her work.  I am super excited to find out what she crafts next!

Thank you as ever to Camilla Elworthy and the publisher for my very much appreciated advanced proof copy.

(The finished copy is beautiful by the way!)

See you soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xx

 

 

 

 

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