The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal
Iris Whittle spends her days painting faces on dolls and her nights sketching in secret. She longs to be an artist, but her dreams seem wholly out of reach for a woman in her circumstances. Silas Reed is a taxidermist who owns a small curiosity shop where he collects and sells the strange, the grotesque, and the beautiful.
It is 1850s London and the Great Exhibition is all anyone can talk about. Both Iris and Silas are drawn to Hyde Park to watch the construction take shape, and a chance meeting will forever change both their lives.
For Iris, the brief acquaintance is soon forgotten, but for Silas it becomes all he can think about, a growing obsession that may just consume them both.
I LOVED this book. This is a dark and twisty psychological thriller, written in sweeping, atmospheric prose. I was enchanted from the first page and could not put The Doll Factory down until I'd read every last word.
Author Elizabeth Macneal is a true artist who has crafted an intoxicating story. Every character is fascinating and so fully formed, from main characters Iris and Silas, to the other major players. The pre-Raphaelite artists — who I knew nothing about before reading this book — are pretentious and charming. Louis Frost, one of the pre-Rahaelites who finds Iris while in search of a new muse, is equal parts endearing and exasperating. Iris's twin sister Rose is both fiercely loyal and painfully vicious. And Guinevere, Louis's pet wombat, stole the show and my heart! How such a large, furry, fictional rodent could be infused with so much personality is beyond me, but it was absolutely delightful.
Iris and Silas serve as our guides throughout the book, as we witness events unfold from both their perspectives. One of the many things that made this story so exquisite is how it perfectly captured how subtle assumptions and misunderstandings can spin wildly out of control. A phrase or a look that meant one thing to the giver can so often be completely misinterpreted by the receiver.
Silas, in his obsession with Iris, reads far more into their interactions than she gives, and yet you can't help but remember times where your own hope and longing led you to wrong conclusions that ended in disappointment. It's in these embarrassing social truths that Silas's sins are made all the more realistic and terrifying. This is a man who has taken his assumptions and desires to such an extreme that there is no coming back. I was on the edge of my seat, so worried for Iris who is completely unaware of the relationship Silas has crafted in his head, a narrative wildly out of proportion with reality, and yet which makes total sense to him as he hurdles headlong down an all-consuming path of longing, jealousy, and wrath.
Meanwhile, Iris is on a journey of her own. She agrees to become Louis's muse, a role considered not far above that of a prostitute in 19th century London, but only if he will become her tutor. He agrees and Iris's dream of becoming an artist could finally become reality. While we see Silas's obsession go from a simmer to a raging boil, we also see Iris's abilities as an artist bloom under Louis's tutelage and her own tenacity. Both aspects of the story are equally gripping. You can't help cheering for Iris in her small victories and mourning with her over each setback. At the same time, an encroaching sense of doom is traveling up your spine as you peer into Silas's mind and soul, knowing full well Iris is oblivious to this man and the darkness that has enveloped him. A darkness which is now reaching its tentacles ever closer to her.
The other character which I haven't yet mentioned but which looms large over the entire story is the city of London itself. Macneal has painted a Victorian London so realistic that I could see and smell it in all its grotesque squalor and magnificent beauty. She doesn't shy away from the poverty that gripped large swaths of the city and describes it in visceral detail that left me squeamish but also appreciative of her candor. So, too, the height of abundance and grandeur is ripe with description and stunning to behold. To put simply, Victorian London comes completely alive in Macneal's deft hands.
This is one of those rare books that I thought was absolutely perfect from start to finish. I can count on one hand the number of books I feel that way about, and The Doll Factory is now counted among them. Elizabeth Macneal's debut novel is not for the faint of heart, but it is for readers fascinated by human nature in both its best and most vile forms, for those hearts that sing over expertly crafted prose, and for anyone who just loves a gripping story. You won't be disappointed.
This review originally appeared on NetGalley. I received a free Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) in exchange for my honest review of this title.
Photo by Alisa Williams.