ShortBookandScribes #PublicationDay #BookReview – The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal @esmacneal @picadorbooks #TheDollFactory
I’m absolutely delighted to be able to review The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal today, on publication day! Congratulations, Elizabeth. It’s a fantastic book and deserves all the buzz around it. My thanks to Camilla Elworthy from Picador Books for sending me a proof copy of the book for review purposes.
London. 1850. The greatest spectacle the city has ever seen is being built in Hyde Park, and among the crowd watching two people meet. For Iris, an aspiring artist, it is the encounter of a moment – forgotten seconds later, but for Silas, a collector entranced by the strange and beautiful, that meeting marks a new beginning.
When Iris is asked to model for pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost, she agrees on the condition that he will also teach her to paint. Suddenly her world begins to expand, to become a place of art and love.
But Silas has only thought of one thing since their meeting, and his obsession is darkening . . .
Well now, this is something quite special. There’s a lot of buzz around this book and rightly so. I thought it was absolutely delicious.
The story revolves primarily around two characters: Iris and Silas. Iris works at Mrs Salter’s Doll Emporium, painting dolls’ faces and secretly yearning to be a painter in her own right. Silas owns Silas Reed’s Shop of Curiosities Antique and New. Honestly, if the shop names alone don’t pique your interest I don’t know what will. Silas is a rather disturbing young man with his shop full of stuffed creatures. He’s a collector and when he becomes a little too interested in Iris it seems that she’d better watch her back.
This is Victorian fiction at its best. I’m finding myself more and more interested in the era and the very eclectic feel of it. Iris finds herself being asked to model for one of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Louis Frost, and I really loved seeing her transformation from a girl who had little future to one who had the brightest of possibilities.
Make no mistake about it, this is a novel with darkness at its core, but it’s also so joyous in places and so uplifting. The author has combined fact (we know the PRB existed, the Great Exhibition takes place within the story) with fiction (Louis Frost is an invention) brilliantly and seamlessly.
From the first page, when Silas is stuffing a dove and making up a back story of attacking cress sellers for it, this book took me on a wonderful journey through Victorian London.
‘There! he exclaims, leaning back and pushing his hair out of his eyes. ‘And perhaps this’ll teach you a lesson for knocking that bunch of greens out of that little girl’s arms.’
When Iris finds herself embedded into the group of artists she is able to paint like she never has before. She’s a very strong woman and it was wonderful to see her rise up from her predicted future and become even stronger. I loved this passage from when she is having her first lesson with Louis and she’s coming alive in her new world:
She glances at the colours before her – emerald green, ultramarine, madder and gamboge. It is like being handed a toffee pudding after months of gruel.
The title of this book is very clever and the meaning only really struck me when I’d finished reading. The main characters are fascinating and so well-drawn (one feisty, one creepy) but there is a cast of supporting characters that flesh out the story perfectly and Macneal’s descriptions of them are just fabulous.
The Doll Factory is absolutely fantastic. I savoured every word, part of me wanting it to last forever and the other part wanting to know what was going to happen. It’s evocative and atmospheric, the smells and sounds of the city come through in the writing, and I was fully immersed in the story. Wowee, it’s a stunner!
Elizabeth Macneal was born in Scotland and now lives in East London. She is a writer and potter and works from a small studio at the bottom of her garden. She read English Literature at Oxford University, before working in the City for several years. In 2017, she completed the Creative Writing MA at UEA where she was awarded the Malcolm Bradbury scholarship. The Doll Factory, Elizabeth’s debut novel, won the Caledonia Novel Award 2018.
Author bio and photo taken from Amazon